Science Literacy And The 2016 Presidential Election

A commitment to keeping our country competitive means a commitment to educating the citizens of tomorrow.

Throughout my career, whether aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, practicing medicine in Los Angeles and Sierra Leone or promoting sustainable development, I’ve experienced firsthand the incredible impact that can be made when we invest in science and technology R&D and science education.

As a result, I know that our country stands at a critical point in the world and in U.S. history. The best paths forward to meet the demand – the imperative – to improve human quality of life while not overburdening this planet must be identified and executed. And frankly, collectively, consciously or unconsciously, we look to science for solutions to this conundrum.

This election cycle we have a lot to consider. And though it’s not recognized or acknowledged, science is pivotal to our way forward. Officials we elect will be tasked to formulate policies and allocate funding based upon their understanding of issues, challenges and opportunities steeped in science. And everyday folks are asked to vote on ballot initiatives that may have profound effects. For example, initiative 732 (2016) in Washington state seeks to reduce fossil fuel consumption through a tax for carbon emissions for certain fossil fuels. A California proposition revolves around plastic bags and the environment and their impact on wildlife.

Throughout the campaign season we have heard a lot about R&D and innovation, and how important they are to drive the economic prosperity. Jobs and innovation are especially touted on the campaign trail this year. However, what we don’t hear about as much is what must happen on the front end of the continuum. Coverage has been scarce on proposed investments for building a diverse talent pool of world class researchers to generate big ideas and bring them to fruition ― or how we will even train a qualified workforce needed to fill the jobs generated.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2018, there will be 8.6 million STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs in the United States. Yet, projected shortfalls of 1- 2 million trained workers mean many of these jobs will go unfilled at a time when it’s imperative for the United States to remain competitive in a global economy.

Even more critically important, and yet seemingly less prioritized, is science literacy for all Americans, which matters regardless of the careers we choose.

I am so passionate about this topic because it is vital. One of the first things I did when I left NASA years ago was start The Earth We Share science camp to create experiential curricula to foster science literacy and connect middle and high school students to science. I am equally thrilled to have worked as Chief Ambassador for Bayer’s Making Science Make Sense initiative, to advance science literacy and STEM education across the United States through hands-on, inquiry-based learning.

Science literacy is the baseline level of knowledge and skills that allow us as citizens to understand news articles about healthcare, the environment or new technology and understand what they mean for us, our families and our communities. Science literacy isn’t about becoming a professional scientist or engineer. Rather, it’s about being able to take in information, form opinions and vote responsibly on issues. Science literacy is about thinking critically. And further, as we achieve science literacy for all students, we automatically increase the pipeline of STEM professionals.

This election season, regardless of which candidate you support, the fact remains that there is a lack of discussion surrounding how our next leaders will approach STEM education and science literacy, though it is incredibly important. A commitment to keeping our country competitive means a commitment to educating the citizens of tomorrow.

On November 8, we have the opportunity to elect a new leader of the United States. Will he or she support advancements in STEM education and science literacy? How will their policies impact investment in STEM R&D? I encourage everyone to look at evidence when it comes to aligning with a candidate. Educate yourself on all of the issues and facts – and VOTE. The notion that ‘my vote doesn’t matter’ is not supported by evidence and it is very dangerous. Your vote does matter, because each of us matters. Education matters. Vote responsibly.