No recent medical event has generated such extensive reporting of scientific concepts, data and science-driven policy as the novel coronavirus. Since mid-March, the American public has been immersed in science — not unlike an immersion course in a foreign language. Complex scientific and epidemiological concepts have infiltrated daily conversations, and the news is filled with references to the immune system, diagnostic and antibody tests and “flattening the curve.”
This crash course in global health, public health, pathology, virology, genetics, immunology and epidemiology has been involuntary. Yet there may be silver linings: increased scientific literacy and, perhaps, greater interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
Scientific concepts are critical to public understanding not just during a pandemic, but for understanding weather forecasts, nutrition labels and more. Yet in the U.S., problems with scientific literacy start young. Historically, U.S. schoolchildren have been out-performed in science and math by children in the rest of the world. In 2018, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 8th worldwide in reading, 11th in science, and 30th in math.
And scientific literacy varies greatly among U.S. adults. A 2019 study found that 76% of American adults studied could define the phrase “incubation period.” Seventy-nine percent understood that antibiotic resistance was a major problem of antibiotic overuse. However, scores differed by educational level and race. About 70% with a post-graduate degree scored high on science knowledge compared to 20% of those with a high school degree or less. Meanwhile, whites are more likely to score higher on science knowledge than Hispanics or blacks.
The same study found that Americans also struggle with numerical literacy — the “ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.” Just 59% of respondents could correctly answer a question based on a chart. That’s a problem at a time when many news stories include line graphs, bar graphs, color-coded maps, and tables with multiple columns of numbers.
Meanwhile, STEM fields suffer from a lack of diversity. Women make up about half of all U.S. workers in STEM occupations overall, but the gender balance is quite lopsided in many professions. For instance, only 14% of engineers are women. The lack of racial diversity in STEM fields is even more concerning. About 9% of the STEM workforce is black, and just 7% is Hispanic.
The pandemic’s flood of science news may help remedy both of these problems. The immersion in science and medicine can help with comprehension of public health messages and communication with health providers. For those Americans for whom this is the first pandemic, this lesson may better prepare them for future health crisis.
Meanwhile, students are being exposed to a wide range of science and math careers that were likely unknown to them. In addition to doctors and nurses on the front lines, chemists, biologists, geneticists, global health experts, public health experts, computer modelers, medical illustrators, and medical writers are all involved in the fight against the coronavirus. This introduction may spur more students to pursue higher education in STEM fields, which could lead to a more diverse workforce. In turn, a more diverse workforce can improve adherence to public health guidelines, satisfaction with medical care, and health outcomes.
When the next pandemic comes, let us hope the next generation is better able to understand its challenges as they unfold. And let us hope that a bigger, more diverse STEM workforce is available to help us face future health crises. If we educators can achieve those goals, then we will have wrested some good outcomes from this terrible crisis.
Susanne B. Haga is an associate professor of medicine at Duke University and the director of education of the Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine.
Op-ed originally posted on Duke University's Medium page on May 7, 2020