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Improving Science Literacy and Conservation in Developing Countries

Carlos L. de la Rosa


Industrialized nations can help improve science literacy in developing countries by:

  • giving their institutions access to current scientific literature
  • translating scientific information from English to other languages
  • publishing papers by scientists from these countries
  • creating literary exchanges between scientists everywhere

October 2000

Taking action on issues requires science literacy.

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.

Industrialized nations have easy access to scientific information.

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.

Developing nations have inadequate science resources.

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:

Scientific literature is mainly for the English-speaking world.
Libraries in developing nations cannot purchase expensive scientific journals.
Authors from developing nations have difficulty getting published in science journals.
  • 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:

Developing nations cannot keep up with the pace of science.
  • 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

Sustainability in developing nations depends on scientific knowledge.

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:

Scientific exchange programs are needed between developed and developing nations.
  • 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.


Conclusion: A scientifically literate society will take bioresponsible action.

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.

Carlos L. de la Rosa, Ph.D., is the Chief Conservation and Education Officer of the Catalina Island Conservancy, California. His past credits include: Education Coordinator for the Department of Environmental Management, Pinellas County, Florida, President of the International Foundation for Environmental Restoration, Education and Management, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve, in Kissimmee, Florida, as well as Adjunct Professor at Florida Atlantic University and University of Central Florida. He has been biodiversity advisor to the Organization of American States, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and organizations in Central and South America. His most recent book is A Guide to the Carnivores of Central America: Natural History, Ecology and Conservation.

Improving Science Literacy and Conservation in Developing Countries

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The Foundation for Scientific Literacy has as its mission to educate, support and promote scientific literacy, defined as “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.”

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One of the largest on-line resources for providing “comprehensive, up-to-date environmental information and news.”

Science for the 21st Century

This 7/99 online report by UNESCO examines the need for all countries to share scientific knowledge and encourage its peaceful, ethical application.

BioNET-INTERNATIONAL: the Global Network for Taxonomy

“Concerned with helping developing countries to recognise and know the organisms that constitute & threaten their biodiversity [in order to] support national programmes for sustainable agricultural development, and conservation & sustainable use of the environment.”

Read a book

Every Child a Scientist: Achieving Scientific Literacy for All, from the National Research Council, is for anyone who wants to take an active role in improving science literacy in our schools (National Academy Press, 1998). You can read an free online version of it at:

Rainforest awareness campaigns

Rainforest.Net contains a wealth of information and resources for people interested in getting involved in issues involving biodiversity, conservation, and population. It is also a good example of multi-lingual web sites.

The Public Library of Science

This “nonprofit organization of scientists committed to making the world’s scientific and medical literature a public resource” offers several options for your involvement. The second link takes you to a 2012 campaign urging Congress to support the Federal Research Public Access Act, which would ensure free, timely, online access to the published results of research funded by eleven U.S. federal agencies.

For educators/researchers: science events database

“A free, fully searchable, multi-disciplinary scientific events database” including conferences on zoology conferences, biotechnology, pharmacology, and biotechnology. “Browse events, order brochures, register and purchase proceedings papers online.” original lesson

This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany the above article. It includes article content and extension questions, as well as activity handouts for different grade levels.

Lesson Title: Science Literacy: Building a Better World
Levels: middle school - undergraduate
Summary: This lesson focuses on examining the importance of science literacy, in particular in developing nations. Students can adopt a school in another country, exchange science information with universities in other nations, evaluate science web sites… and more!

Download/view lesson.
(To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Useful links for educators

  • » iEARN
    The International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) is a global telecommunications community of over 15,000 schools & youth organizations in more than 100 countries. “Participants may join existing structured on-line projects, or work with others internationally to create and facilitate their own projects.” This link includes existing science projects; all are focused on “improving the quality of life on the planet.”
  • » Scientific Literacy
    American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) brings the best of the scientific world to educators, exploring basic principles and applications of science to our daily lives. Geared to K-12 educators.
  • » Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE)
    GLOBE is a worldwide network of students, teachers, and scientists working together to study and understand the global environment. Students and teachers from over 9500 schools in more than 90 countries are working with research scientists to learn more about our planet.

Useful links for student research

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:

General References

  • » Lewin, Keith M. 2000. “Mapping Science Education Policy in Developing Countries.” The World Bank, Washington, D.C. 4/2/09 not available
  • » Lewin, Keith M. 2000. “Linking Science Education to Labour Markets: Issues and Strategies.” The World Bank, Washington, D.C. 4/2/09 not available
  • » National Research Council. 1998. “Every Child a Scientist: Achieving Scientific Literacy for All,” from the Committee on Science Education K-12. National Academy Press. Available at:
  • » UNESCO. 1999. “Science for the Twenty-First Century.” Text adopted by the World Conference on Science.


Understanding Science