It is Vital to Teach Students about Scientific Institutions

In our recent Phi Delta Kappan magazine article Penny Noyce and I quoted a former president of MIT, Susan Hockfield, who wrote in Science that if the public hopes to “get the most from this scientific golden age,” then it will have to understand the critical roles played by scientific institutions. We pointed especially at governmental institutions whose mission is to use science for the public good.

Teaching about these institutions is easy to do. In fact, I can recall being taught about scientific institutions when I was in elementary school. My Weekly Reader included articles about the World Health Organization (WHO), and other scientific institutions, in language appropriate for young people. It still shocks me to realize that the Next Generation Science Standards does not say teachers should mention even a single scientific institution. Authors of the NGSS evidently did not believe that knowing about these institutions is part of the minimum knowledge needed by students to become scientifically literate adults.

American society is now paying a heavy price, because federal science-based institutions—about which most people have been taught nothing—are being attacked by President Trump and members of his administration. Seven former heads of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a public statement expressing deep concern about the politicization of the agency. “At risk,” they wrote, “is the FDA’s ability to make the independent, science-based decisions that are key to combating the pandemic and so much more.” Similarly, four former heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publicly expressed concern that political leaders are “attempting to undermine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and subvert public health guidelines.

Social scientists use the term “inoculation” for the concept that exposure to some important ideas (e.g., fossil fuel companies may use advertising to mislead you) later reduces “infection” by misinformation. It seems very likely that teaching young people about the role and function of key science-based agencies, as well as the nature of scientific integrity, will later help them resist political efforts to undermine those agencies.

The Trump administration has undermined scientific institutions over and over again, for years. Isn’t it time for leaders in science education to suggest that learning about the key role of scientific institutions is basic to developing young people’s scientific literacy? Unfortunately, the science education establishment is very resistant to re-examining the NGSS. It will be up to states, districts, and hundreds of thousands of science teachers to make the choice to help “inoculate” Americans against anti-science propaganda.