The idea that a majority of voters don’t understand pressing issues like stem cell research and climate change strikes Jon Miller as simply wrong. Miller, a research scientist who joined ISR in August 2010, believes that scientific literacy is fundamental to a functioning democracy. “People ought to know what they’re voting for, and it ought to be more than do you like the way the person looks, or do you like the spouse and the dog,” he says.
Miller, 69, whose most recent appointments were at Michigan State and Northwestern, has devoted decades to thinking about science, citizenship, and education. In 1979, he was the first researcher to begin measuring scientific literacy, and the National Science Board used the data he collected for 20 years as part of its biennial Science and Engineering Indicators.
In recent years, researchers in more than 40 countries have run surveys based on Miller’s core set of questions—questions that remain relevant, he says, by focusing on basic constructs of science, such as viruses, DNA, and galaxies, rather than on the hot button scientific issues of the day.
The good news, Miller says, is that the understanding of science in the U.S. is increasing. According to his surveys, 28 percent of the adult population was scientifically literate in 2008, compared to 10 percent in 1988. Younger people are doing even better. Miller credits the uptick and the U.S.’s second place ranking in scientific literacy among 34 comparison countries to the general education approach of U.S. colleges, which compels students to take some science courses; the U.S. is the only country with such a requirement.
Now that Miller is at ISR, two of his long-term efforts, the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy and the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, have found permanent homes. For Miller, the move is a profound change, but a good one. “It’s the first time I’ve ever worked in a building where there are 200 people who do surveys,” he says, with a laugh. “Often, I was the only one.”