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    FROM THE DIRECTOR | Contents | Next

    The Importance of Science Literacy in a Computing World

    BY
    Sid Karin, NPACI Director

    The rapid growth of the Internet, the appearance of computers in our cars, homes, and phones, and the convergence of telephone, television, and computing networks are leading up to an environment that I have called the "computing continuum." The emerging continuum, including what's being called the computational grid, affects everyone, whether you have a computer at home or not, by accelerating the dissemination of information at speeds never before possible. This rising tide of information and the increasing presence of technology throughout our society makes scientific and computational literacy more critical than ever for the long-term interests of society.

    The National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 1998 report emphasizes the contradictions in American society related to scientific literacy. On the one hand, nearly 80 percent of the public agreed that the federal government should support basic research. On the other hand, only one in five Americans consider themselves very well informed on those issues. Furthermore, according to the report, only one-quarter of Americans understand the nature of scientific inquiry well enough to make informed judgments about scientific results reported in the media.

    CRITICAL THINKING

    SHAPING TOMORROW'S WORLD

    CRITICAL THINKING

    The objective inquiry of science remains the best means available for determining appropriate responses to many controversial issues facing society. The uncertainties surrounding global climate change, for example, demand a means to separate individual passions from the objective reality, even if that reality is not always as black-and-white as we might like.

    The computing continuum, by its unregulated nature, makes it possible for everyone to encounter not only seemingly contradictory information regarding scientific results, but also the baseless findings of "junk science" and the scare tactics of modern-day Luddites. The critical thinking that accompanies scientific literacy is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff as well as understand the conditional nature of science. Outside the realm of science, such critical thinking leads to social benefits by helping citizens to see through the deceptive, anti-social messages of hate groups that have found in the Internet an outlet for their rants.

    At the same time, the computing continuum is breaking down the lines that have divided communities, both scientific and social. Today's advances in cosmology and materials engineering, for example, often involve complex computations, large amounts of data, and collaboration made possible by the computational grid. NPACI's thrust areas were chosen to accelerate this integration between disciplines. Opening new lines of communication has obvious benefits and emphasizes that we're all in this together, but again, requires a general understanding of science at all levels.

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    SHAPING TOMORROW'S WORLD

    "The terms and circumstances of human existence can be expected to change radically during the next human life span. Science, mathematics, and technology will be at the center of that change--causing it, shaping it, responding to it." Thus reads the introduction to Benchmarks for Science Literacy, a report from the Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Project 2061 is a long-term initiative to reform K-12 science education nationwide by helping educators work toward science literacy for all students.

    Today's citizens are called on to shape tomorrow's world by their use and understanding of scientific and technological advances. Political decisions at the voting booth based on scientific findings have economic and social impacts. For a person to fulfill that responsibility requires literacy about science, including its benefits, risks, and limitations. As scientists and technology developers, we must educate a literate populace.

    In this light, as we voice our support for the administration's $366 million IT2 initiative, a six-agency program to expand the federal investment in computing and communications research, we must complement this initiative with an investment in the scientific literacy of the nation. The report from the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), upon which the IT2 initiative is based, also recognizes this need: "A diverse work force literate in information technology is critical for ensuring that our Nation is prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities of the Information Age."

    NPACI and the National Computational Science Alliance have established a national education, outreach, and training program, EOT-PACI, with the mission of ensuring that all citizens can use emerging technologies to understand and solve problems in education, science, business, government, and society. As Rita Colwell, NSF director, has said, "Our challenge now is to design our digital future to reflect the light of the Information Age. ... That's something we have to do inclusively, together as a society. That will be the way to transform the Age of Information into one of wisdom." end note

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