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NanoCenter Researcher Leads NSF Workshop

December 07, 2010

USC NanoCenter Researcher Leads NSF Workshop on Public Knowledge of Science

Dr. Chris Toumey of the USC NanoCenter organized and chaired the National Science Foundation workshop on public knowledge of science, held at NSF in Arlington VA in October 2010. The workshop report, Science in the Service of Citizens and Consumers, is now available.

The National Science Foundation collects data on public knowledge of science and reports it in the Science & Engineering Indicators. For the 2010 edition, a disagreement arose regarding the value of some of the data. One response to this problem was a call from the NSF and the National Science Board to convene a workshop to reevaluate the conceptual framework for measuring and reporting public knowledge of science.

The National Science Foundation asked Dr. Chris Toumey to organize and chair this workshop, which took place on 21-22 October 2010. Also participating was Dr. John Besley of the USC School of Journalism & Communications. Mr. Colin Townsend of the Department of Anthropology served as the graduate research assistant to coordinate the logistics for the workshop.

The previous conceptual framework for measuring and reporting public knowledge of science was known as “civic scientific literacy”. It measured general scientific knowledge in the American public, as if members of the public were like micro-scientists in their grasp of science. The new framework created by the recent workshop describes three purposes for which members of the public might need scientific knowledge, namely: (a) to take an active and constructive civic role in a science policy decision-making process; or (b) to gain the kind of practical knowledge that enables a consumer to make individual choices about one’s life or one’s health; or (c) to feed one’s personal curiosity about science.

Thus the starting point for measuring and reporting public knowledge of science is not what scientists think that the public ought to know about science in general, but rather what members of the public need to know in certain roles and circumstances.

Dr. Toumey’s leadership in the NSF workshop reflects his long-standing commitment to public engagement with science and technology, both as a research theme and as a service to nonexperts. Because of his work and that Dr. John Besley and others, the USC NanoCenter is known as an institution that cares sincerely about public engagement.

For more information, contact Dr. Chris Toumey:
To read the workshop report: