Celebrating International Literacy Day, 8 September 2014

The international theme this year is “Literacy and Sustainable Development” reflecting the importance of literacy in an evolving world moving towards an inclusive world - read the blog by the Chair of the IAP Global Science Education Programme Council ...

International Literacy Day - 8 September 2014

Dato Lee Yee Cheong

Chair, IAP Science Education Programme (SEP) Global Council

8 September 2014

Each year the world celebrates International Literacy Day on 8 September.

A year ago, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, reminded us that, since 1990, the global illiteracy rate had fallen from 24% to 16%, with more than 100 million more people being able to read and write.

Science literacy day 2014While these figures are commendable – and while we realize that much works still needs to be done to reach the remaining 16% – I would like to propose that simple reading and writing is not enough. What is required, in addition, is understanding – and especially understanding of science and logical reasoning.

During the IAP Executive Committee meeting held in Canberra, Australia, last year (when I was elected as chair of the IAP Science Education Programme) I was charged with expanding the remit of the programme to include also science literacy.

Since its launch in 2000, the IAP SEP has been successful in promoting inquiry-based science education (IBSE) in classrooms around the world, from Australia to Chile, from Senegal to Sudan, and from France to Nepal.

Thanks to the IAP network, academies of science have played a leading role in disseminating the practices of IBSE, which teach children how to formulate and test hypotheses, see what works and what doesn’t, and to apply their reasoning to find solutions to challenges. These are valuable skills, not only in the science classroom, but in all walks of life.

Not every child, however, receives a suitable education in science. Thus there is a great need to reach out to the wider community so that everyone understands the basics of science and can base decisions on rational thinking – this is what we mean by science literacy.

For example, I was appalled at the recent looting of a clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, where Ebola patients were being treated. There were reports of blood-stained sheets and mattresses being carried away into the township; putting thousands of people at risk from this deadly disease. And all because of a lack of understanding of the virus and how it is transmitted.

Likewise, many people are still resistant to eating the products of genetically modified (GM) crops, despite the fact that they have now been on the market for some 20 years and no significant safety issues have arisen. Or even to have their children vaccinated against potentially lethal diseases such as the measles, often because of discredited scares in the media about their safety. Perhaps it is these same people who resort to the ‘power of crystals’ and other unproven methods to resolve certain health issues, despite the spectacular successes of modern medicine.

Science literacy activities can take many forms, for example promoting science communication through various media outlets – both dedicated science magazines, or in the more general press or radio broadcasts, etc. – or by promoting the establishment of science museums. To this day, many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, still lack even a single science museum. Perhaps here we can use modern technology – already virtual science museums are being created; and social media such as Facebook and Twitter can help reach millions of people. Efforts should also be made to reach out to policy-makers to ensure that they are basing their decisions on the best science available – a role that has been central to IAP since its inception.

And for these reasons, science academies are perfectly placed to help build science literacy around the world. Under the IAP SEP, we have made a start. For example, in June this year, IAP came together with the Korean Academy of Science and Technology (KAST) and the Akademi Sains Malaysia (ASM) to host an international workshop on ‘Science Literacy: Science communication and science outreach’ in Seoul, South Korea. The 25 participants from 11 countries, mostly in the Asia region, shared their experiences. In the meeting’s concluding statement, participants confirmed that science education and science communication are the keys to improving science literacy, and proposed the creation, under the auspices of the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA), of a Special Committee on SHER (Science, Health, Environment, and Risk) Communication designed to promote and coordinate science literacy efforts in Asia.

In addition, the IAP SEP 2014 Biennial Conference scheduled to take place in Beijing, China, this coming 28-30 October, will focus on ‘Challenges and Opportunities of Inquiry Based Science Education (IBSE)/Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education’ , see: This event provides an ideal opportunity for academies of science to come together to discuss how to move forward in promoting science literacy on a global scale.

I urge all academies – not only those who will have representatives in Beijing – to consider how they can roll out science literacy activities in their countries and regions.

As the discussions leading up to the finalization of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals are informing us, the application of science and technology will be essential to meeting a number of the new goals. It is imperative, therefore, that our global community is aware of the basis and implications of science and that our people have the capacity to work towards the goals based on the best available knowledge and reasoning.

As our global population continues to expand, and as we continue to exert various pressures on our planetary systems – including the unsustainable use of water resources, fossil fuels and biodiversity – it is imperative that we seize this opportunity and ensure that not only are earth’s citizens educated to read and write, but also to have a basic understanding of science and its underlying principles.

Academies of science are well placed to advance this process – of ‘science literacy for all’. I urge them to take the lead now.


International Literacy Website official website