Bolivian children enjoying books, thanks to the Sister Libraries Project of Appalachian State University, USA and Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo: Appalachian State University.
Broad access to scientific information is key for people to understand, participate and respond to the challenges that development poses to civilization. Understanding of issues such as global warming, loss of biodiversity, evolution, implications of genetic research, and many other topics is essential, almost a requisite, for personal involvement in these issues. They affect all of us, and the better we understand them, the better we can respond with appropriate actions, whether these are activism in public causes or changes at the personal level.
In the United States, access to information is wide spread. A visit to a decent bookstore provides an enormous amount of possibilities. Libraries, particularly university libraries, are similarly endowed. The advent of electronic information, particularly the World Wide Web and other means of global information access, has multiplied the ways in which people can obtain information. You are actually using one very powerful (and inexpensive) source of information as you read this and other articles on this web site.
The bioscience literacy status of developing nations
Access to scientific literature in developing countries is marginal at best. While scientists and college students can use the resources of fairly good technical libraries, individuals are less fortunate. There are several reasons why this seems to be the case:
There are many more books and science articles published in English about issues of relevance to developing countries than in their native languages. For example, although there are many field guides to animals and plants of the Neotropics, most are available only in English. Several guides, such as The Birds of Costa Rica, Birds of Venezuela, and D. Janzen’s Costa Rica Natural History, have been translated into Spanish, but most have not. While English is one of the universal languages, it is by no means spoken or understood in many non-English speaking countries.
The situation with respect to technical scientific information is more serious. While many scientists in developing countries read and understand English, many scientific journals are not within easy reach. University libraries in these countries are always strapped for funds and can barely afford to subscribe to even a few journals in each specialty field. The rest are generally unavailable to scientists and students. Without access to current literature, the preparation and publication of works directed to the more general public is delayed or impaired.
Simultaneously, and perhaps more damaging in the long run, is the difficulty that many scientists in developing countries have in trying to publish their research results in American, European or global-scope journals. The conventions and regulations with respect to language use, reference citations, and the necessity of supporting research results with up-to-date bibliographic information, makes the publication of their articles an ordeal.
The sum of these situations carries several consequences:
- Citizens have little access to reliable and current scientific information in their native language and at their level of understanding (i.e., without technical jargon).
- Scientists have a hard time keeping up with recent developments in their areas of expertise, making it more difficult for them to publish and be up-to-date in their studies.
- Educators, in general, have even less access to accurate, relevant and up-to-date information on most issues related to science.
The net result is a society that can’t keep up with the effects that accelerated development has on their environment, which ultimately will affect their own sustainability. More “enlightened” societies in developing countries are aware of the problems but become frustrated in their attempts to solve these problems from the outside.
Improving access to bioscience information in developing countries
Some of the responsibility for the conservation of tropical natural resources lies on the shoulders of developed countries. However, this doesn’t diminish the responsibilities of developing countries to work towards a more educated society, one that is more conscious of their effects on the natural balance and more effective in fulfilling the tenets of sustainable development, to which most of these countries adhere, at least in principle. To become sustainable they have to be able to put into practice these tenets. There is also truth in the statement that most of the new scientific information about many of these issues is being generated in the developed world. Sharing this information in effective ways is a joint task.
So, what can we do to improve scientific literacy in developing countries? We could:
Develop personal relationships with scientists and educators in developing countries. There are many scientists that have made these relationships part of their careers, but the pattern needs to expand to concerned citizens, philanthropists and educators. As access to the Internet becomes more widespread in developing countries, these relationships should be easier to develop.
Support the development of literary exchanges between institutions and organizations, whether these are universities, colleges, high schools or non-profit education or conservation organizations.
Share the wealth of information. It is easy to make books, journal subscriptions and magazines available to counterpart organizations or even individuals in developing countries.
Provide and promote subsidies for the publication of key works (books and articles) in the countries’ native languages, making them widely available and their cost reasonable to the local citizens.
Participate in the preservation and utilization of knowledge that indigenous people have about the environment based on their centuries-old observations of native species. The indigenous way of life is an admirable example of the benefits of ecoculture.
Science literacy at the citizen’s level in developing countries is essential for the development of sustainability and for the protection and conservation of irreplaceable global resources. An environmentally aware society can make the right decisions about the environment and support their leader’s efforts towards sustainability. Developing countries, often mired in internal political, social and economical struggles, can’t afford to add environmental deterioration to their problems, especially because of a lack of access to relevant information. Since developed countries often produce and publish much of this information, it behooves them to make the extra effort to make the information available to the decision-makers and citizens of developing countries.
© 2000, American Institute of Biological Sciences. Educators have permission to reprint articles for classroom use; other users, please contact email@example.com for reprint permission. See reprint policy.