As scientists march for more appreciation and recognition of science in the United States, many are overlooking that scientists themselves share a major part of the blame for the American population being science illiterate. Our public school students study barely one-third the science course work of students in other countries.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the largest group of scientists in the world and a major sponsor of the March for Science. They publish the weekly journal “Science” and I am among their 120,000 membership. But the AAAS is directly culpable for the science ignorance of Americans.
In the late 1980s, I was a science professor invited to sit on the local high school science curriculum committee. We were designing advanced courses for students who wanted to pursue more biology, chemistry, physics and earth sciences. But before the committee had finished, an administrator rushed in with a hot-off-the-press AAAS policy: “Less Science, Not More.” That simple-minded theme shut down any new advanced science sources in high schools across the country.
In the 1980s, many science teachers had been upgraded by NSF Academic Year and Summer Institute that greatly increased their science knowledge. Kansas State Teachers College was one major site, and the KSTC-trained teachers went back to their schools from Florida to Alaska and Arizona to Maine with an enthusiasm and desire to teach more science. But the AAAS “Less Science” halted this drive for more science and even gave school administrators ammunition to reduce science offerings.
I wrote to the education section of AAAS under F. James Rutherford, author of the motto, and received the reply that it was not their intention to reduce science, just that the current science should be taught better. But the AAAS was clueless about how their policy was being understood in the field. They soon released their next theme: “Science for All Americans.” This again prevented any expansion of more advanced courses because it focused science teaching on delivery to all students—basic literacy only. The smaller group of students who had an interest in advanced science were ignored.
While AAAS is comprised of nearly all scientists, their education branch is not. Instead the AAAS has followed Education School philosophies that believe that advanced science not necessary. Future citizens do not need to know more science in this Internet Age. —Folks can always look things up online.
Numerous scientists complained to AAAS about the “less science” problem in our school curricula, but AAAS has remained tone deaf. As a result, America now ranks with Afghanistan in anti-vaccination belief. Pharmacists must read simple prescription instructions to us. And each of us pays several thousand dollars more per year in higher medical costs—due to ignorance about our anatomy and physiology—in higher health care costs, medical insurance, and stupid jury decisions.
Foreign exchange students come to our public schools and find themselves well beyond grade level, while our students go overseas and find themselves far behind in science.
America has to “buy” most of its engineers and physicists from overseas, and foreign students make up the majority of U.S. college degrees in those areas. In the 1980s, we only accepted into medical school the top 1/4th of students who took the MCAT. By 2000, we were taking nearly half. Now NPR reports that only 40,000 sit for the exam to fill 30,000 MD/OD school positions. Our science pipeline is going dry.
Every American student should have a full high school year of anatomy/physiology/microbiology merely to be a good patient. —And another full year of zoology/botany/ecology in order to sensibly understand the environment. And far more advanced high school science courses should be available for students attracted into science. But we don’t even have enough science teachers to cover our current anemic curriculum.
“The future belongs to those countries that make friends with science,” said India’s Prime Minister Nehru a half century ago. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not friendly to science. The guilty parties are not just the government and public. The science community and AAAS itself shares part of the blame.