Biology Textbooks Present an Overwhelmingly Negative Picture of Businesses

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Biology textbooks used in introductory college courses across the country present an overwhelmingly negative picture of businesses, according to a new study from Bentley University’s Center for Integration of Science and Industry. This may alienate students pursuing business careers from fully engaging in science education at a time when scientific literacy is increasingly important for U.S. businesses to compete in the technology-driven global economy.

The study also found that biology textbooks reinforced a picture of an adversarial relationship between science and industry, rather than teaching students how science and industry can team up to create social benefits, for example, through new treatments for diseases, alternative sources of energy, new jobs, new investment opportunities and economic growth.

The study, which was published in an article in the journal CBE—Life Sciences Education, analyzed more than 20,000 pages and 2,379 specific passages in the 29 most widely used textbooks in first-year biology courses. Passages about business were nearly twice as likely to be negative as positive, the study found– 36 percent to 20 percent.

The large majority of students who take an introductory biology course in college will ultimately work in business occupations. For these students, the negative representation of business may undercut both their engagement with the science curriculum and ultimately their ability to use science in the workforce. For those who pursue science careers, this representation fails to teach how industry can extend the impact of science to the public.

“When I entered the workforce after graduate school, I knew a lot about how to make scientific discoveries but not how to make them accessible to society,” said Sharotka Simon, lead author of the study, who is a PhD biologist and holds an MBA from Bentley. “I had been exposed to negative stereotypes of business like the ones in these textbooks, so I decided to complete the Bentley MBA program to learn business from experts who understood its positive potential.”

“At Bentley, we are focused on developing an undergraduate science curriculum explicitly for business students,” said Fred Ledley, director of the university’s Center for Integration of Science and Industry. “Our courses are designed to emphasize the synergies between science and business and to encourage the reflexive use of science in business decisions and in strategy.”

The article discusses the results in the context of research showing that business decisions inevitably begin with fast, intuitive thinking, which can introduce biases into critical analysis. Repetition of negative stereotypes of business in science textbooks, coupled with the prevalence of such stereotypes in the popular media, encourages students to see science as being essentially at odds with business practice. A more effective strategy would be to provide constructive examples of how science can inform effective business practice to encourage the use of science in business careers.

The study’s co-authors included Dr. Helen Meldrum, Eric Ndung’u and Dr. Fred Ledley. The work was supported by a grant from the National Biomedical Research Foundation.

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