The pandemic has put on display for all to see the profound impact of science. Scientists around the word mobilized with breathtaking speed to isolate the devastating new coronavirus and take vaccines to scale in under a year.
Through science we have reached pinnacles of human achievement: the moon landings of the 1960s, the Hubble Telescope, the exploration of our deepest oceans, better understanding of the human body and human behavior, the development of treatments from gene therapy to robotic body parts to replace amputated limbs, and the discovery of water on Mars.
The accomplishments and discoveries of science are inspirational, especially for children, as they come to understand their world and develop a sense of agency within it. Science education needs to stimulate children’s intellect and imagination and motivate them to consider science as they work to solve the pressing problems the world faces today and will confront tomorrow: cancer, future outbreaks of disease, tenacious agricultural challenges, climate change, food insecurity, and disparities in health and wellness between racial groups, to name just a few. America needs a rich and diverse pool of talent to solve the problems of the future. When solutions are designed from many perspectives, they can better address the needs of diverse communities.
Scientific thinking and understanding are essential for all people navigating the world, not just for scientists and other STEM professionals. A big mistake the country has made is believing that science is for scientists only. Science should be taught with all people in mind, not just to fill the pipeline for future scientists and
technical workers. The nation’s schools teach reading, writing, and mathematics because these are foundational skills for daily life and participation in society. Science literacy is fundamental as well.
All people need scientific literacy to be critical consumers in their everyday activities and to make sense of information presented in traditional or social media . Americans need to be able to evaluate evidence and distinguish between what are reliable sources of information, poorly supported claims, and unequivocal falsehoods. Again, the pandemic shows why. The press and government officials have shared new findings related to COVID-19 on an almost daily basis. The regular flow of information about the virus demands constant evaluation of new evidence to inform decisions that impact daily lives: whether to go to the grocery store, cancel a child’s birthday party, or send them to school. The past year has demonstrated the need for everyone to understand science at its most basic levels. Simply put, scientific literacy elevates the quality of decision making in almost every aspect of daily life.
Science does not replace values, ethics, faith, and aesthetics; rather, it provides people with the means for understanding the world in which they apply all those things. Neglect, misunderstanding, or rejection of science resulted in tragic surges of the pandemic. It is apparent that the country needs millions of trained, creative scientists and support technicians, and it is apparent also that large numbers of world-class scientists are not a substitute for an entire citizenry that understands and embraces science. Science in society and in the schools must be for all, not only for reasons of fairness and equity, but also so that a democratic society can deal with the problems that confront it.
Understanding science and the practice of scientific thinking are essential components of a fully functioning democracy. Many of the nation’s and communities’ most pressing social and political issues involve science. Civic leaders, community members, and voters need to make informed decisions about policies and investments that often require some consideration of scientific evidence. For example, decisions about how a community can maintain air quality, whether it should consider flood or air pollution mitigation, whether to institute water rationing during a drought, and what to do about the proliferation of plastics all require people to grapple with the underlying science. In fact, responding to any issue, even those that do not appear to pertain to science, requires that people ask the question that science teaches students to ask and answer, “What does the evidence suggest?”
This question is a tool that civic and state leaders have used frequently during the pandemic when presented with the need to regularly update guidance on when and how to open restaurants and businesses, how many people to allow at sporting events, how to conduct high school athletics, and when and how to reopen schools —and at what grade levels. Science is one of the key disciplines that teaches people how to ground decision making in evidence.
Science is also crucial for the future STEM workforce and the pursuit of living wage jobs. While STEM skills have always been important for many kinds of technical work, these skills are becoming increasingly valuable for an array of jobs held by workers who have not traditionally been thought of as part of the science labor force, such as welders, electricians, and farmers . (See Box 2 for how science is essential to farming.) Still, the nation needs a cadre of talented scientists, engineers, and other STEM professionals to advance knowledge, design new technology, and drive a robust economy. The opportunity to be among that cadre should be equitably distributed across all geographies and populations of students, including people of color and women. STEM jobs are much more likely to secure living wages for those employed in them. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2019, the wage of a STEM professional averaged $86,980. For a non-STEM worker, it was $38,160. That’s a difference of nearly $50,000 annually .
Yet, the nation has a poor track record of advancing students of color2 out of K-12, into postsecondary learning opportunities, and on to STEM professions. Black, Latino/a, and American Indian/Alaska native people make up 27 percent of the U.S. population ages 21 and older but occupy only 11 percent of STEM positions . Women are also underrepresented in many STEM fields. Only 15 percent of engineers and 26 percent of those employed in computer and mathematical science fields are women . In not providing pathways for so many people to enter STEM careers, the country is missing out on their talents and limiting their futures.
Science Must Be Equitable and Inclusive
Science must not remain a club for a few. There is ample evidence that workforce diversity produces better, more innovative results. Diversity in the workplace not only expands the available talent pool, but also increases the range of perspectives and expertise available to solve grand challenges in STEM . Diversity in the workplace, particularly the STEM workforce, also improves work performance and engagement, enhances the quality of research and provision of health care, and supports innovation and growth [7, 8, 9]. Research has also shown that corporations with intentional efforts to recruit and promote people of color and women are more profitable . And scientific research groups that are more heterogeneous, based on gender, produce research that is more likely to be published in high-impact journals .
Beyond benefits to the scientific enterprise, expanding the pool of talent is important for ensuring that science takes up questions and problems that are important for a
2 For the purposes of this report, “people of color” is a term we use to signify those who identify as Black, Latino/a, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Indigenous/Native American/Alaska Native. We opt to use the more contemporary term “Latino/a” in place of the term “Hispanic,” which commonly appears in datasets we draw from. When quoting directly from datasets, we use their terms. Different researchers, when they are identifying students who are underrepresented, either include or exclude Asian, especially when identifying populations underrepresented in STEM. We have footnoted places where it is important to understand what dataset the research we cite uses.
wide range of communities. Building a diverse scientific workforce can help ensure that science better serves all people.
Science Education and STEM Education
For over a decade, the importance of giving students pathways into STEM professions has guided STEM education in the United States. Efforts have largely been focused on inspiring students to pursue STEM careers. This emphasis can lead to programs that target select groups of students and may overlook the importance of science and mathematics as foundational disciplines for all students.
In fact, science is foundational to technology and engineering and provides the basis for the entire modern technical sector. Science is the questioning, the systematic observations, the measurement and data collection, the experimentation and modeling, and the process for revising knowledge based on new evidence that underlies the STEM disciplines. For students to develop foundational knowledge and competency in science, they will need to have access to high-quality learning experiences focused on science. Activities that integrate across the STEM disciplines can be motivating, but they cannot replace high-quality science instruction for all students to help them understand the practices and principles of the discipline.