Notes from the President: Literacy (Fall 2007 Trust Magazine)

Reading and writing—that was all the word literacy referred to, when it first came into use in the late 19th century. Now we commonly speak of scientific, geographic, computer, financial literacy, just to name a few variants. Each field has a distinct vocabulary, and when we learn it—when we gain literacy—we have the information to make informed decisions in the relevant field. Literacy is power, the power of knowledge.

Nanotechnology is a new area—less than 50 years old (the word itself was first used in 1986), it refers to the design, manufacture and use of materials at an incredibly small scale, about 1/100,000 the diameter of a human hair. The science is heralded as this century’s industrial revolution. It is used in popular merchandise (e.g., stain-resistant clothing, tennis balls for longer-lasting bounce, dietary supplements) as well as in, for instance, biomedical devices, space exploration and computer-based goods. Its benefits will only expand, since the public and private sectors now invest more than $12 billion a year in nano research and development.

But what about the risks? Nano materials can pass barriers—in one notable experiment, the blood-brain barrier— that would stop larger particles, so medicines may penetrate the body more deeply than desired. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, established as a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Pew, supports the responsible growth of the science, effective and transparent governmental oversight, and a public literate about the technology. Only an informed public can understand the risks, balance them against the rewards and hold policy makers accountable for policies protecting human health and the environment.

What happens in the world’s oceans, like the work of nanoscience, takes place outside the range of the unaided human eye. Yet, unlike nanoscience, we think we know something about the oceans. We flock to the coasts (more than half of Americans live on or near an ocean) and are concerned about beached whales and dolphins. In terms of what we actually know about marine life, however, we have not scratched the surface of the seas, partly because science has not kept pace and partly because national and international policies are sometimes counter to public interest. Yet the more literate that we become about the implications of overfishing and other devastating practices on the oceans, the more informed that citizens in all countries can be in calling for policies to protect our environment.

The price of unabated and unregulated extractive activities, and the subsequent unwelcome changes to the oceans and other natural resources, are chronicled by Callum Roberts, a Pew marine conservation fellow, in his book The Unnatural History of the Sea, published this year. He also has a solution. An expert in conservation biology, he has shown that marine reserves can reverse the downward spiral. “If today’s generations do not grasp this opportunity,” Roberts notes, “tomorrow’s may not get the chance.”

No one should let misinformation or bad information stand for “literacy,” but that is what many Americans do when it comes to understanding Muslim Americans. The Pew Research Center recently brought facts to bear in a poll exclusively about Muslim Americans and their daily experiences and aspirations. The data show that, as a group, Muslim Americans are “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world,” the report notes. Because lack of knowledge can breed disrespect and distrust, the survey’s information is essential as we as a society become ever more diverse and complex.

Most people would agree that the arts contribute to the quality of life and the economy of a city or region. Still, knowing the facts can have a significant impact on support for cultural activities. The National Cultural Data Project is an ambitious, comprehensive and now-proven system of gathering and analyzing information about the contributions of this sector.

The project is like an enormous spreadsheet on which arts organizations enter their operations data, track them over time and compare their practices to those of their peers and the cultural sector at large. It streamlines an organization’s process of applying for funds, and it gives arts advocates the statistical evidence to articulate the value and the needs of the arts.

This initiative, begun in Pennsylvania through a partnership of organizations that included Pew, now extends to Maryland and California, supported by local and regional funders.

Whether driven by our intellectual curiosity or in our role as engaged citizens, we can only make informed decisions if we have knowledge. The power that knowledge confers starts with being literate about the subject, and once we gain that basic mastery, there is no end to its potential to serve the public good. “An investment in knowledge,” Benjamin Franklin perceptively wrote, “always pays the best interest.”

Rebecca W. Rimel
President and CEO

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