Science and technology (S&T) underpins everyday life, from extreme weather to vaccines to remote learning and virtual working. However, according to the US Department of Education, only 22% of high school graduates are proficient in science, illustrating the S&T knowledge gap in many Americans.

This is not a new occurrence. While “reading, writing, and arithmetic” have been given due educational priority for hundreds of years, science and technology have not. Meanwhile, the sustained rise of S&T in all aspects of life over the last several decades has resulted in an ever-widening chasm between those who are proficient – and those who are not.

S&T is now embedded not only in jobs, but also in the process of applying for them. Employment in restaurants, ride-sharing companies, journalism, the health professions, K-20 education, and a variety of other occupations have all incorporated S&T. At the consumer level, health and medicine are becoming increasingly complex; knowing how and where to find the best information when making health decisions is frequently difficult. A stronger foundation in science and technology would provide a more solid foundation for success in our work and personal lives.

What should we do to improve Americans’ access to science and technology?

Of course, we need to improve K-12 and undergraduate science and technology curricula. Indeed, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s recent report, “Call to Action for Science Education,” emphasizes the importance of making science education a national priority.

But what can be done outside of schools and the workplace? Grocery stores, sporting and entertainment venues, restaurants, shopping malls, gas stations, train stations, bus stops, and other common places could be used to improve S&T proficiency with some creative thinking. These areas could be used to provide facts or to help people understand “how stuff works” in bite-sized chunks. These bite-sized pieces would have to be compelling, entertaining, and memorable, while also providing genuine and relevant scientific or technological information.

Grocery stores and restaurants, for example, could educate customers about the food supply chain. A highway rest stop could feature an exhibit on how cars use fuel and the environmental impact that results, as well as comparisons to other modes of transportation. Exhibits and discussions about how vaccines are developed, manufactured, and approved for public use could be held in libraries and pharmacies. In short, our lives are becoming increasingly dependent on and intertwined with science and technology. While many people will not become scientists or engineers, a better understanding of science and technology will be even more important in navigating daily life.

Perhaps more important than ensuring that the general public has access to reliable information is ensuring that Americans are S&T literate. We must improve people’s abilities to learn about new technologies and applications, as well as their benefits and drawbacks. People will need to be able to ask tough, relevant questions and understand the answers in order to evaluate the latest innovations and their implications.

The skills required to assess whether information is valid or not are the most fundamental to S&T literacy. S&T advancements now allow access to information from a wide range of sources, from the most reliable to the least reliable – and everything in between. Anyone with access to large online platforms can publish information. The ability to critically evaluate information in a digital world – digital literacy – is critical for S&T proficiency. There are institutions engaged in digital literacy, most notably libraries, but these efforts require more robust support and expansion.

Public policy initiatives could significantly improve public understanding of science and technology issues, as well as S&T literacy. Local, state, and federal governments, professional organizations, corporations, and the philanthropic sector could all contribute to efforts to improve understanding. These organizations, as well as other high-profile actors, could use their influence to encourage efforts to advance S&T awareness and learning. Scientists and engineers who are involved in such efforts should be given more professional recognition.

Policymakers must take action to bridge the growing S&T divide. While immediate action, such as addressing insufficient broadband access, is required to close the fundamental digital divide, we must also strengthen digital literacy and S&T proficiency. Policymakers should take such steps now, whether through the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the pending United States Innovation and Competition Act, federal FY23 Appropriations bills, other legislative vehicles, or other governmental or private sector initiatives.