My Dream for Science Literacy: Abstracts 2.0

I have been wondering for some time: How can I make the biggest impact to science literacy (This was a start). However, I know I can do more.

Science Literacy

I received my weekly email of the Table of Contents for one of my favorite journals PNAS today and read over the titles of the articles. As usual, I’m reading them and saying in my head, blah blah blah because I am looking for certain keywords to identify the article as something I would be interested in (like chemotaxis or second messenger cyclic-di-GMP). Then it occurred to me,

I’m trained to know what these titles mean and which ones would interest me. What about everyone else in America? To them it’s just blah blah blah without the training to know if they would like the research or not. 

A majority of published scientific research is federally funded by taxpayer dollars in the U.S. yet most taxpayers have no idea why the research findings from these funds are important or how they contribute to a better society.

What if the article abstracts, laced with big words and jargon, were rewritten to a level where most people could understand; an abstract 2.o if you will? By reading a short summary of the work, anyone who wanted to know could actually understand the problem studied and the results. Maybe more importantly, the reader would not have to rely on interpretations of the research from popular media sources that have higher priorities than educating the public.

I will have more on this concept in the near future. Please let me know what you think and add comments and suggestions.

20 Replies to “My Dream for Science Literacy: Abstracts 2.0”

      1. Actually I would love to write a blog post based on your description of how bacteria make decisions. It would be in a dumbed-down format (I have to dumb down everything so I can understand it.) Would that be OK?

  1. We have NSF, Academy of Science etc. If the public is satisfied with the Tuesday’s N.Y. Times Science section what more can we do to enhance science education. Most of the public doesn’t even know about TIMS. If every elementary teacher would include science into interdisciplinary approach to learning that might help Science Literacy.

  2. I think we need to start with the question the community continually asks. “That scientific (information/knowledge) is all fine and dandy but why do I need to know about it? Will it effect me? Is there anything I can do about it anyway?”

    Scientific knowledge and the community’s need to know it needs to be linked to people’s lives. Great science teachers try to interpret these ideas and present them to their students everyday around the world.

    Further, explaining (say) the global impact of the rise in C02 levels to people seems to have very little impact on the amount of electricity a person uses in their home – there is a discionnect between the science and theunderstanding. If we can connect the research/information with direct impacts on people’s lives then people will pay more attention to us boffins.

    In the majority of cases, scientific types continually tell people that “this is important” or “that is important” when in fact its not in the context of their day to day activities. Take for example sea level rise. What can any one person do about it? It becomes disempowering for people to even think about it so its seems to me people decide its better just not to engage or think about it. That’s the problem. Too high falutin for our own good…

    We need to first connect before people engage with science.

  3. Journal of Ecology makes a stab at this:
    Those abstracts are still too technical, and you’d have to want to find them to know they exist. I get them as a feed from the publisher.

    I suggest you get on Twitter and follow #scicomm where this discussion is ongoing.

    And these sites will bring you up to speed with others thinking about the same things:

    And by all means come to the Univ. of Missouri in March to kick this around:

  4. Wish I had some positive message. Feedback
    Personal history
    I was a high School dropout and volunteered for the army and serve in Laos returned with a TBI. I returned to college after 4 years. I started out in environmental science, then transferred to a 4 year college earned a BA in Biology, work a year in electroplating waste treatment and disposal then a year in the industry for electrochemical etching of capacitors while finishing a chemistry degree. Finally went to graduate schools then 2 years in Basic research.
    Upside: Enormous amount of knowledge is available if you show a sincere desire to learn.
    Downside of Science: My opinion based on perception from my experience is that management scores very poor marks in the area of people skills. The changes over the past 10 years illustrate that the criteria for employee development, expectations and risk for retention have become cookie cutter in nature.
    I eventually landed my first real job in a Biotech company founded by a couple of the MIT professors’ in mid-80’s. Worked over 25 years in the Pharmaceutical Industry with 3 companies then became unemployed.
    “Scientist’s in general, are not very well rounded”.
    Part II Our Educational System
    The educational system as a whole in the US is very uneven for all divisions of federal, state County and townships. Basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals, logs, performed without a calculator should be a given when allowed to be handwritten. Emphasis is on passing tests with high grades, for the high ranking students. However there is a lack of student’s inability to pass the immigration test for their own country. Give the student a breath of information to eventually drawn from later in their career. Language English or 2nd, History, Social Studies, Geography, Science, Math, Arts, Music, Athletics with variety.
    The sciences, math, engineering are not exactly enticing given that they require above average effort for most and often extended time for Graduate and post graduate work before even landing a job. There is limited amount of time a company will invest in the employee. I am not very positive in my view of our children’s future to compete in the global market at technical skills requiring hard work and understanding.
    Having worked with Scientists from the U.S., China, England, France, Germany, USSR (at that time), and Singapore, and Australia. I do not see any lacking ability from US scientists or students given the proper training.
    Companies are crying for leaders managers and whatever Psych criteria they are using is not working because the managers at lower to at least mid-management have become very incompetent to work with subordinates beyond company manuals and training.

  5. Society is becoming so much crazy about technical science especially related to medicine that no end to it.Person may not know what is cholesterol but know well to keep this devil down.They don’t know what’s the hell utility of cholesterol.But thank God they know good and bad.But it’s our major fault when we try to inform a general person about the technical science jargon.

  6. I agree completely that it must be written differently and adapted to the target audience. The writer or scientist has to ‘connect the dots’ for those readers who do not get the language or understand why the research is important. The role of the researcher or department is to both do the research, and find the means to communicate that and connect the dots (identify real world concepts and how it affects people’s lives on a daily basis) for everyone else, hence why the role of effective communicators is vital in science and many other research based industries.

    Great topic by the way!

  7. GREAT POST! As a Middle & High School Biology teacher I have often felt that 99% of all “science” that is published in journals is not accessible to those who might be interested because non specialists are turned away by even the jargon in a “simple” abstract. Heck – even this AMAZING video of the “Inner life of a cell” ( which was produced to encourage involvement in science fails because the narration makes it seem like you need a PhD to appreciate it. When I “translate” it for my students they think it’s great and have a ton of good questions! I’d love to see a “Science Geographic” that would present science discoveries the way that Nat Geo does — in an accessible manner that encourages deeper exploration.

    1. I completely and whole-heartedly agree, John. If society only knew a fraction of the amazing processes occurring right under their noses, science illiteracy would be a thing of the past. That’s why I also dabble in creating 3D graphic illustrations to convey the message.

  8. While the “abstract 2.0” concept sounds like it has merit, I think that a fundamental lack of interest in science is an underlying problem that abstracts written for the layman can’t address. Most of the thousands of people I know from my career outside of science (martial arts school owner and instructor) operate under the belief that science is for scientists and medicine is for physicians. The same applies to folks not understanding how cars, computers or TVs work: “If they function as needed, that’s great, I don’t need to know. If it breaks, I’ll take it to a pro and hope they fix it and won’t overcharge me.” Sensing they have no hope in understanding it, or their investment in time would be excessive, they tune it our, leave it to the pros, and hope for the best. Or maybe pray.

    There are already many good writers in mass media that do a fairly good job of translating scientific and medical breakthroughs in lay terms (along with those who do an awful job).

    I believe the problem of Americans’ overwhelming scientific illiteracy is best addressed in childhood by cultivating a true curiosity of how the world works. This is a challenge, since most elementary school teachers have little scientific training or understanding. Since this can’t be easily or quickly changed, I propose that every elementary school hire one or more highly qualified science educators who would visit every class at least weekly, stimulate the children’s’ curiosity with captivating stories, then teach how their questions could be answered by scientific inquiry.

    1. I couldn’t agree more about the lack of interest in science within our society here in the U.S. Also, the change must start within elementary school. Luckily, I have science teachers very interested in this and want to develop class activities around the concept. For this, I am very hopeful. Great comment, Steven.

      1. Thank you matt. I taught for many years in the n,y.c. public school system. In the 80’s in n.y.s. a revived interest and knowledge that science was criticlal emerged.. This wasn’t a result of Sputnik in the late 50’s, but a view that our nation was falling behind even third world countries in science effficiency. I, lwith the help of my science directors efforts, allowed my school district to receive a grant from the N.S.F that allowed us to train all the elementary teachers and administrators in science at the elementary level. With the advent of testing in the 4th and 8th grade helped educators to utilize student centered learning and a ” Hands On ” approach to interest and encourage science learning and appreciation for the subject. Today, I think that zeal has lessoned with too much emphasis on reading and math. That’s how teachers and students are evaluated.
        Afterwards I taught elementary science to undergraduate as well as graduate students preparing to teach science with the approach I used as an administrator withe the N.S.F. grant. I am ret ired now and only teach a science workshop at the 92nd st. Y in N.Y.C. once a month for both children and their parents. this experience allows me to evaluate how much the children have learned in their classroom. There are some promising signs, especially with a good percentage of female participants. However, over all, I don’t know how much and how science is taught at that level today.
        There is plenty of money out there today to suppliment additional training and interest for educators at the elementary level in teaching science at a student centered and ” Hand’s On ” approach. They have to go for it with the help of museums, colleges and parental support to strenghten and keep our nation and the world a safer place.

      2. I commend you on all your efforts to help each of us to improve our scientific knowledge and curiosity. We have to do more, and I intend to keep your drive and spirit going for years to come. Thanks, Stephen.

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