IF the American public expects its leaders to make sensible decisions about some of the most critical issues facing this nation in the next decade, we will all have to get a better understanding of the facts of science and scientific thinking than most Americans have today. Access to energy supplies, nuclear power and waste disposal, genetic engineering, AIDS, and global climate changes will dominate economics, medicine, and environmental policy.
Yet, more Americans know their astrological sign than understand that astrology is superstition. And only a tiny slice of the population grasps the scientific complexities of tomorrow's issues rather than the simplistic arguments hawked, for example, by those who brought us the "dangers" of Alar in apples, the supposed imminence - 20 years ago - of a new ice age, and global famine by 1990.
Presidential leadership will be essential to changing this situation, for we believe today's lack of interest in science results from a lack of interest in the subject by most American leaders. Americans are uninterested because most members of government and the media - who set the agenda that dominates everyday conversation - are themselves uninterested in science. Aside from occasional mention of space spectaculars and AIDS, there is little in-depth news coverage of science, and what little science sh ows up on television is treated more as spectacle or politics than scientific progress.
Of course, the lack of interest in science by newsmakers could be the result of bottom-up effects surfacing a generation later. Moreover, some might suggest that the media would pay more attention to science if there were a greater public demand.
But there is, in fact, plenty of demand. Stephen Hawking's book "A Brief History of Time," a stimulating but difficult volume on the physics of the universe, remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for more than 100 consecutive weeks. Boyce Rensberger, science editor of the Washington Post, started a widely read and respected science page. The New York Times publishes a weekly science section, and its reporters have won Pulitzer prizes.
There is latent public interest in science. But do most opinion leaders share that interest?
In a recent survey of the backgrounds and interests of the White House press corps, Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution drew a bleak picture of the media's interest in science. During the summer of 1991, Mr. Hess interviewed most White House reporters. He found that 37 percent of them had majored in journalism in college, while 58 percent studied in the humanities or liberal arts, leaving little room for science majors.
"White House reporters, then and now, are woefully uninterested in economics and the natural sciences," Hess wrote. Congressional reporters have equally little knowledge of science.
Similarly, the vast majority of members of Congress have had virtually no exposure to the hard sciences. Using Congressional Research Service data, we estimate that no more than 15 current members of Congress have undergraduate or graduate degrees in the hard sciences and engineering - even counting medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine; that is less than 3 percent of our 535 legislators, the vast majority of whom are lawyers. By contrast, in 1990, 16 percent of all US baccalaureate degrees went t o science majors, as did 16 percent of all master's degrees and 48 percent of all doctorates.
The pattern can be broken. President Clinton made an impressive gesture in picking his science adviser, Dr. John Gibbons, earlier than any president since John F. Kennedy. Mr. Clinton has an opportunity to stimulate broader public interest in science by taking added steps: the president's science adviser could be given Cabinet rank; a continuing White House fellowship program for scientists could be initiated; and funding could be increased in a predictable manner for basic and applied research. Clinton could call attention to science through public statements, speeches, meetings with distinguished scientists, and by visiting laboratories.
As the first century of space flight, quantum physics, and molecular biology draws to a close, the American public must become more involved with science. The decisions facing America will demand a broad understanding of the nature of science, the doors it opens, and the limitations it imposes.
Executive leadership must make that involvement happen.