The future of biotechnology depends on quality science education

Public concern, followed by calls for regulation, often accompany the explosive growth in influence and reach that are associated with the development of scientific and technological breakthroughs - breakthroughs that can fundamentally change the environments in which people live. Biotechnology is increasingly facing mistrust and scrutiny by individuals, organizations, and government officials across the world. Some of this concern is warranted, because all new technologies have the potential to cause adverse effects. The biotechnology community must agree on ways to monitor its activities that are sensitive to the public's welfare and need for accountability, if heavy-handed government regulation and undue restrictions are to be avoided.

However, many of the problems that this community faces are also attributable to a lack of the public's understanding of both the scientific principles and the processes that have led to the success of biotechnology. If people are to work, live and contribute to a world in which science and technology pervade virtually every aspect of their lives, they must become more scientifically literate. Scientific literacy for career scientists and engineers is no longer sufficient. People in every walk of life, and especially those who teach these subjects or are involved with the regulation of science and technology, must become much more knowledgeable not only of isolated scientific facts, but also how those facts are integrated into a deeper understanding of the world. They must also understand how new knowledge and discoveries become incorporated into the fabric of society.

In short, science and technology education also must mirror the practice of science. As the (U.S.) National Science Education Standards for pre-college students emphasize, science is something that students do, not something that is done to them (NRC, 1996). Science education in the elementary, middle, secondary, and university levels must come to mirror the scientific process. In addition to being told about specific content and concepts in the life and physical sciences, all students need to practice the skills and abilities associated with scientific inquiry in age-appropriate ways. They also need tobecome proficient in the skills and abilities that underlie the scientific enterprise. These include[i]

  • Science as a "way of knowing" -- and what science can and cannot discern; 
  • The roles of evidence and proof;
  • The distinctions between basic science, applied science, and technology;
  • The connections between the natural and mathematical sciences;
  • The relevance and importance of science to other fields of knowledge and to society;
  • The uses and limits of scientific and engineering methods;
  • Scientific conduct and ethics.

In short, science education must undergo the kind of transformations in thinking, practice, and application that the biotechnology revolution has delivered both to the scientific enterprise and to society at large. We must restructure education systems that currently make high quality science education accessible primarily to those students who are intending to go on to traditional careers in science, mathematics, or engineering; instead, we must offer such opportunities to all students. Educators must understand that learning scientific facts is insufficient if we are to provide students with quality learning experiences in science. The knowledge base of science reshapes itself far too quickly to equate the acquisition of some specific corpus of facts that were learned in school with scientific literacy. Students also must have extensive experience with inquiry, so that they can understand how science constantly builds upon and reshapes knowledge. They must understand how the practice and application of science has value and implications for their lives and their communities. A nation's citizens - and the people who represent them - need to be prepared to make informed decisions about many issues and policies that are deeply influenced by science and technology - including of course those that relate to biotechnology.

The National Academies of the United States[ii] have addressed issues of science education and scientific and technological literacy extensively for the past decade, publishing more than 150 reports that deal with all aspects of education during this period. In addition to the reports already cited, we have published "How People Learn", a book that summarizes what science has discovered recently about children's learning and what this means for schooling (NRC, 2000). We also have produced important publications for teachers of science (i.e., Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, NRC 1998 [iii]; Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards, NRC, 2001), inquiry-based curriculum materials for students in elementary and middle school (see the website of the National Science Resources Center, http://www.si.edu/nsrc/), and a booklet to explain these new approaches for science education to parents (Every Child a Scientist, NRC, 1997).

In all, nearly 3000 reports dealing with all areas of science and technology are available for reading without charge on the website of the National Academies Press (http://www.nap.edu). Most of these reports will soon be available as downloadable PDF files. The National Academies are making all of these PDFs available to everyone in any of 130 developing countries without cost.[iv]

Your readers should also know that the national academies of science in 80 nations have formed an InterAcademy Panel on International Issues in order to work collaboratively on issues of mutual concern. The priority issues include the improvement of science education and of scientific and technological literacy.

In summary, the promise and potential of the biotechnology miracle needs to be understood and shared by all citizens. That understanding can only come through the improvement of science and technology education for all citizens. This will require that scientists everywhere play critical roles in helping teachers and schools systems achieve the revolution in education that is needed to prepare the world's peoples for the 21st century.


National Research Council, 2000. How People Learn: Mind, Brain, Experience, and School. Expanded Ed. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available at Internet: http://nap.edu/catalog/9853.html.

National Research Council, 1999. Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available at Internet: http://nap.edu/catalog/6453.html.

National Research Council 1998. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available at Internet: http://nap.edu/catalog/5787.html.

National Research Council. 1997. Every Child A Scientist. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available at Internet: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/6005.html.

National Research Council, 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available at Internet: http://nap.edu/catalog/4962.html.

i. These ideas are excerpted and modified from NRC (1999), pages 33-34.

ii. The National Academies is a private, nonprofit organization whose charter is to assist the federal government and the American people in analyzing pressing science and technology policy issues. The National Academies include three honorific societies, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. The National Research Council serves as the operating and research arm. Much of the work of the National Academies is performed by leading scientists, mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, and policy experts who provide pro bono service to the National Academies and the nation.

iii. Evolution in Hawaii: A Supplement to Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, is in press and should be available for reading without cost by January 2004 at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10865.html

iv. Individuals from certain countries receive free access to PDFs based on their computer’s IP address. When you go on-line, the computer that you are using is assigned an IP address, which can be translated to determine whether you should have free access. People from the following nations are eligible for free pdf versions of National Academies reports: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Guiana, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Lithuania, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Samoa, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Tajikistan, Thailand, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, West Bank and Gaza Strip, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Bruce M. Alberts
National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
2101 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20418 USA
Tel: 1 202 334 2101


Jay B. Labov
Senior Advisor for Education and Communications
National Research Council of the United States of America
500 Fifth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001 USA
Tel: 1 202 334 1458



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