Joseph Lewis & Ethny Childs
March 2024

Scientific literacy: What do we need to know to make informed choices?

winding path seen from birds-eye view

This article is adapted from 'Transforming the planet: Our vision for the future of environmental science', which sets out a vision for the role of environmental science in facilitating the transition to a sustainable society.

That vision is one where environmental scientists help people to solve environmental challenges and co-create a sustainable society where people and nature thrive. To do so, future environmental scientists need to provide specific knowledge and understandings to enable people to make informed decisions about their future.

Read our full vision in Transforming the planet.

The role of effective science communication in supporting collaborative decisions about the future will be paramount. To that end, the relationship between science, the public, and policy will be vital in supporting transformative change, even beyond the extent to which it informs public consent for decision making.

Science must play a role in providing scientific literacies, which will be necessary to empower community decision making. Scientific literacies cover the basic understanding of certain scientific topics needed to engage with the consequences of that science for human decisions.

For example, climate or carbon literacy supports an understanding of climate change, while systems literacy provides an understanding of the ways that complex social or natural systems work. They help people make decisions about what science means for their lives, informing personal choices as well as policy making.

Scientific literacies are useful for individuals and policy makers, but will also be crucial for environmental scientists to support interdisciplinary working and provide the skills necessary to support the transition to a sustainable society.

What next?

Literacy alone is not a solution to environmental crises. Scientific literacies which do not facilitate solutions may be disempowering. Evidence-informed monitoring without public support may be illegitimate. Knowledge networks without access to evidence may be ineffective. 

The challenge for the future will be to make these practices more widespread, bringing together all applications of science in ways that are valuable to humanity.

Making evidence mean something to different audiences will always be crucial, so environmental science needs to meaningfully engage with decision makers and the public. Only by sharing evidence widely can the public be empowered to support the transition to a sustainable society.