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Public trust in scientists rises, according to poll

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of Americans who think scientists act in the public’s best interest is up from 2016, but the public is divided along party lines over views on scientific objectivity, research quality and trust of the scientific method. 

 While 57 percent of Americans say they have mostly positive views of environmental research scientists there are large divides between republicans and democrats over trust in their work, according to a Pew Research Center survey, released Friday. 

Of the 4,464 adults surveyed in January, 86 percent said they had a fair amount of confidence in scientists working in all fields, up from the 76 percent who said so in 2016, according to the survey. 

When asked if they believe environmental scientists provide fair and accurate information all or most of the time, just 19 percent of republicans responded that they did, compared to 47 percent of democrats. 

Overall, 35 percent of Americans said they had a great deal of confidence that scientists act in the best interests of the public, up 14 percentage points from 2016. 

Researchers found, however, that the more someone says they know about science, the more they trust scientists and the scientific method. Among republicans who said they have a high amount of science knowledge, 59 percent said the scientific method generally produces accurate conclusions. In contrast, among democrats who said they have a high amount of science knowledge, 86 percent said they trusted the scientific method to produce accurate results. 

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Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew Research Center and a co-author of the report, in an email to APR wrote that while issues such as climate change, childhood vaccinations and genetically modified foods have been points of contention in society, Pew Research Center’s latest survey shows that overall views of scientists are generally positive. 

“But people’s trust in scientists working in medical, nutrition or environmental specialties is more tepid, by comparison. And there is skepticism of scientists when it comes to issues of transparency and accountability,” Funk wrote. “As people think about the factors that influence their trust in research findings, 57 percent said they have more trust in research findings when the data is openly available to the public and about half say the same when research findings have been given an independent review.” 

“I agree that increased transparency is another important way to increase trust in science,” wrote professor James McClintock in an email to APR on Monday. McClintock teaches polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

McClintock said over the past several decades, the scientific community has worked to increase transparency. Federal agencies often now require that scientific data be placed on data repository web sites where there is full public access, he said. 

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McClintock said he isn’t surprised by the survey results that show a political divide when it comes to the environment, however. 

“To help reduce this divide, I lecture widely on the science of global climate change to public audiences that include individuals of all political persuasions,” McClintock said. “I believe my objective, first person, apolitical presentation on the impacts of rapid climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula provides a compelling story of climate change that provides the listener the necessary information to make up their own mind on the issue of climate change.” 

While the survey showed differences along party lines in opinions on environmental scientists, public support for scientists working in other fields doesn’t show the same partisan divide. The Pew Research Center’s survey asked questions about scientists specializing in the environment, medicine and nutrition.

Researchers did see some partisan differences in views on nutrition researchers, there were no such differences among those polled about medical doctors, medical researchers or dietitians. 

Increasing the public’s appreciation of the scientific method is yet another way to increase the public’s confidence in science, McClintock said.  

“Scientists set up rigorous hypotheses to test, and the outcomes of these hypotheses must be repeatable and stand the test of time,” he said. “Little by little, step by step, scientific knowledge advances. Through repeated investigations, a scientific theory, like the foundation of a building, is supported by the addition of more beams and so strengthened.”

Americans are, in large part, not sufficiently schooled in the scientific method, McClintock said, but he added that it isn’t necessarily the public’s fault.  

“Scientists and teachers are working aggressively to better provide science education in our country, often through programs funded by the federal or state government or various non profit agencies. The value of a scientifically literate public should not be underestimated,” he said. 

In an effort to increase science knowledge in Alabama schools, McClintock recently received a grant from the Susan Mott Webb Foundation in Birmingham to support a summer science program called “Penguins in a Warming World.” 

Directed by McClintock’s research associate and Antarctic scientist, Maggie Amsler, the program brought over 50 middle school teachers to the McWayne Science Center for three days of lectures on Antarctic marine biology and to carry out experiments that demonstrated the impact of melting of the Antarctic ice sheet on sea level rise. 

The program bolstered their understanding of the scientific process, the basics of climate change and gave them ideas on how best to communicate knowledge on the challenging topic to students and their parents, McClintock said. 

“These teachers are now positioned to improve the scientific knowledge of climate change, its impacts, and its mitigation, with thousands of middle school students in the greater Birmingham region,” McClintock said.

 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Report: Alabama ranks 47th in the nation in child well-being

The state’s poor ranking is also a drop from Alabama’s ranking last year of 44th in the nation.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama ranked 47th in the nation in child well-being, according to this year’s Alabama Kids Count Data Book, published by VOICES for Alabama’s Children , and the poor ranking comes before the impacts of COVID-19. 

The state’s poor ranking is also a drop from Alabama’s ranking last year of 44th in the nation. Alabama improved or remained the same in 14 of 16 categories studied in the report, but the improvements were outpaced by other states. 

“We have actually not really gotten worse, but we’re not improving as fast as other states,” said Stephen Woerner, executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children, a Montgomery children’s advocacy nonprofit that helps compile the report. 

Woener, speaking to APR on Monday, said that the data collected for the report was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it may be two years before enough data is compiled to determine the impact the pandemic has had on Alabama’s children. This year’s Kids Count book will be a critical benchmark used to measure those impacts, he said. 

“I don’t think there’s a single indicator in this book, beyond the demographics, that is not going to be impacted. Whether it’s food security, or infant mortality. Just across the board. Across all 70 indicators. All of them are going to see impacts,” Woener said. 

He’s especially paying attention to COVID-19’s impact on education in the state, Woerner said. 

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“With remote learning and kids being out of school, schools closing down and that being so sporadic and community specific, we’re going to see impacts that are significant and not even across the board,” Woerner said. 

Woerner also stressed that the pandemic hasn’t brought about new problems, but only worsened existing inequities and challenges facing children and their families statewide. 

“A good way to look at that is the childcare system,” Woerner said. “Access to affordable, high quality, safe childcare. That system was already incredibly fragile to begin with, and COVID has decimated it.” 

The state got down as low as 10 percent of child care centers open in April, and has increased to 85 percent open in mid-October, but of those open, the centers are averaging 66 percent capacity, Woerner said. 

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“We’ve been told by the national level that as many as 40 percent of child care providers may be out of business by the end of the year, if we don’t do a significant influx of federal funds to help support it,” Woerner said. 

Alabama ranked 45th in economic well being, but improved slightly from 2010 to 2018, dropping from 28 percent of children living in poverty to 24 percent during that timeframe. 

The state is seeing improvements in third grade literacy and Alabama’s pre-K program continues to expand, Woerner said. 

“We’ve seen really good places where our investments have paid off, but we’re going to have to continue to prioritize them,” Woerner said. 

The report did find racial disparities in education, however. During the 2018-2019 school year. Black students were suspended at a rate of 19 percent, which was twice as high as all other races, at a rate of 9.9 percent or less.

“We’ve got to continue to highlight those disparities and recognize that we can’t afford to fail any of our kids, and our kids are not inherently failures,” Woerner said.

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Alabama Education Association, Board of Medical Examiners meet over excuses to break COVID-19 quarantines

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Officials with the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners met on Thursday to discuss a concern the association has with doctors who write excuses to allow students to return to school before their mandated COVID-19 quarantine periods expire.

At the meeting between Theron Stokes, associate executive director of the Alabama Education Association, and William Perkins, executive director of the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners, Stokes learned that the board wasn’t aware of the problem, the AEA said in a press release. 

“Both groups agreed to set up a meeting with educational and medical organizations on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama,” the AEA said in the release. “A meeting should be held before the end of the year and will allow the AEA and the Board of Medical Examiners, as well as other educational and medical organizations, to review existing guidelines issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and ensure conformity in following those guidelines.” 

In a letter to Perkins on Thursday, Stokes wrote that it was AEA’s understanding that the board was aware of the problem, but he wrote that during their meeting he became aware that neither the board nor Perkins was aware of the problem. 

“It was not the intent of AEA to cause any unnecessary problems for you, the doctors you represent, or your organization regarding this matter,” Stokes wrote. 

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

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“It is our firm belief that there exists no medical scenario under which these students could be written out of quarantine and that to do so is violative of ADPH and CDC quarantine recommendations,” Stokes wrote in the Nov. 5 letter. 

Stokes in his recent letter notes that both agreed in the meeting to bring together representatives of the other organizations to come up with a uniform procedure for following state and federal guidelines. 

“I agree with your plan to conduct this meeting and finalize our goals before the holidays,” Stokes wrote.

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Governor announces more than $298 million for K-12, college projects

$298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced more than $298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

“The Public School and College Authority was established with the intent on tackling long-standing school infrastructure projects or educational upgrades that have been delayed due to limited funding,” Ivey said in a statement. “I’m pleased to announce these 20 projects with the people of Alabama in full transparency. The announcement today marks a significant investment in the future of this state. I’m grateful to the Alabama Legislature for the enabling legislation which established the PSCA and the astute work of State Finance Director Kelly Butler for positioning the bond sale in the best way possible.”

The PSCA is comprised of Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey.

“I am thrilled that the PSCA is able to provide these funds to worthwhile projects throughout the state,” Butler said in a statement. “I am grateful to the legislature for authorizing the sale and to Governor Ivey for her leadership in supporting this transaction. The successful sale is the result of outstanding work by the financing team, and I thank them for all of their efforts.”

The state Legislature in 2019, authorized the PSCA to sell up to $1.25 billion in bonds and allocated money to every city and county K-12 school system and to higher education institutions, with 73 percent of the funds going to K-12 schools and 27 percent going to two-and four-year colleges.

Because of low interest rates, the bond sale resulted in the PSCA receiving over $300 million in premium revenues, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The true interest cost of the bonds is two percent over the 20-year repayment period.

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The PSCA projects funded from the premium revenue and announced today are:

  • University of Alabama Huntsville: Huntsville Regional Lab and Morgue — 11,000,000
  • HudsonAlpha: Expansion of Biotech Campus/designate Alabama the Discovery Life Sciences Global Headquarters — 15,000,000
  • Auburn University: New STEM & Agricultural Sciences Complex — 50,000,000
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham: Genomic Medical & Data Sciences Building — 50,000,000
  • Troy University: Center for Materials and Manufacturing — 9,450,000
  • Alabama Center for Arts: Dorm — 15,000,000
  • University of South Alabama: New Medical School Building — 50,000,000
  • University of North Alabama: Computer Science & Mathematics Building — 15,000,000
  • Alabama School of Deaf and Blind: North Alabama Campus — 28,519,992
  • Alabama Aviation College: Phase 2 renovations of Barnett Building and upgrade the hanger floor — 500,000
  • Lauderdale County: Workforce Development Center — 8,000,000
  • Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Renovations and Repairs — 5,000,000
  • Alabama School of Math & Science: Science Research Center — 6,000,000; Outdoor Classrooms — 235,000
  • AIDT: Toyota/Mazda — 8,000,000
  • Jacksonville State University: Randy Owen Performance Center — 15,000,000
  • The American Village: Central Independence Hall and Tower Classrooms and Experiences — 5,000,000
  • Alabama A&M University: Library Roofing — 907,500; Wilson Hall, Drake Hall, Carnegie Hall wood restoration project — 605,000
  • University of Montevallo: Residence Halls HVAC/Roof Repair — 1,000,000
  • University of West Alabama: Brock Hall 2nd Floor Renovation — 2,600,000
  • Alabama State University: Friendship Manor — 1,500,000

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Many Alabama schools return to remote learning before Thanksgiving

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week.

John H. Glenn

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Despite the state saying there are no plans for a statewide move to remote learning, numerous local systems across the state have begun transitioning to remote learning after a large number of COVID-19 cases were reported in school systems across the state last week. 

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) K-12 COVID dashboard.

“We’ve heard about rumors suggesting there would be a statewide move to remote learning after Thanksgiving. Absolutely not true,” ALSDE spokesperson Michael Sibley said. “There have been no plans or discussion concerning any form of statewide shutdown. Local systems, of course, have the autonomy to make their own schedule and react to their individual circumstances. But no statewide plans for this.”

As early as Nov. 9, multiple city and county school systems in Alabama began announcing transitions from in-person to remote learning. Tuscumbia, Oneonta and Alexander City Schools all by Nov. 13 had begun or fully transitioned to remote learning. 

“Over the past three days, Alexander City Schools has seen a surge in positive cases,” Alexander City Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Lankford said in a statement to The Outlook. “The health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and community are most important to us. After consulting with the Alabama State Department of Education lead nurse and reviewing our data related to COVID-19, we have decided that it is necessary to move all schools to remote learning effective Nov. 16.”

Alexander City Schools have reported 32 positive cases among students and teachers, with 259 students and faculty currently in quarantine.

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East Limestone Middle School and High School said they would also transition to remote learning due to understaffing problems, WAFF 48 reported. Close to 300 students have been quarantined in those schools, with 20 positive cases among teachers and students.

Huntsville’s Goldsmith Schiffman Elementary, Ridgecrest Elementary, Columbia High and Huntsville High followed Friday morning, saying in a press release those schools would transition to remote learning until Nov. 30.

“The district’s Preventative Measures Team worked collaboratively with each school’s leadership team to assess several factors before making the decision to transition to remote learning.” Huntsville City Schools’ press release reads. “Instruction will occur as it did during the remote learning period at the beginning of the school year.”

Birmingham’s Carrie A Tuggle Elementary transitioned to remote Nov. 12th, just three days after Birmingham city schools began reopening in-person classes, WBRC reported. The school recorded 5 new positive cases over the past two weeks.

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Marshall and Colbert county schools fully closed their in-person programs until Jan. 5, WAFF 48 reported. Marshall County Superintendent Cindy Wigley recently tested positive for COVID-19, the news station reported, along with 37 other people in the Marshall system. Nearly 300 others are quarantined.

Colbert County Schools reported 11 positive cases, 10 of them teachers, according to school officials. One Colbert County bus driver, Bobby Stutts, died from COVID-19 earlier in the week, according to several news reports.

Coosa County School System announced on the system’s Facebook page that they would continue virtual learning through the Thanksgiving break before returning Nov. 30. According to the K-12 COVID dashboard, the system has reported no cases. 

Lauderdale County High School will also move to remote learning after increased numbers of students and teachers tested positive for COVID-19, according to a post on the system’s Facebook page. Lauderdale County reported 33 positive cases last week, according to the K-12 COVID dashboard.

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