Creating Technology for Social Change

Invading the Ivory Tower: How to Define and Perform Civic Science

My project changed several times over. Initially, I planned to combine my science background with the class curriculum and my ostensible status as a journalist to write a news series on civic science projects. However, the more I researched this subject, the more I realized that I needed to back up quite a bit before I could attempt such an undertaking.

First, a little background. Many modern policy issues explicitly involve science, but we increasingly find that debate focusing on the facts of the science itself, rather than finding policy solutions to our science-related problems. This state is what some call the ‘knowledge war’ – a stark battle between scientists, whose community tends to be somewhat removed from general public; and the rest of the population, which has a uneven connection to and understanding of the scientific process. And without knowledge of basic scientific facts, or an appreciation for how scientific ideas are analyzed, people will have trouble (1) keeping up with important science-related issues, (2) assessing the validity of new information, and of course (3) participating meaningfully in the political process.

So what’s the solution? According to some, it’s civic science, defined here by political theorist Karin Backstrand:

“The notion of civic science, which is rather vague and elusive, serves as an umbrella for various attempts to increase public participation in the production and use of scientiªc knowledge. Civic science alludes to a changing relationship between science, expert knowledge and citizens in democratic societies. In this perspective, citizens and the public have a stake in the science-politics interface, which can no longer be viewed as an exclusive domain for scientiªc experts and policy-makers only.”

Unfortunately, it seems that we don’t know exactly how to define civic science outside of the lofty goals that we’ve set for it. This is kind of like the problem we had in the first week of class when we attempted to define civic media without appealing to the ideal. We know that civic science must relate somehow to scientific knowledge, as well as the far-flung expert community that produces it. We know it necessarily involves some component of citizen engagement. And we know that civic science is meant to serve as some kind of peace treaty in the so-called knowledge war. From all this, I realized that before we can have a discussion on civic science, we should have a better idea of what it is and what makes it good. Based on recommendations of successful projects through formal interviews with civic science thinkers, as well as my own research, I set out to explore three examples that might provide insight into the common features of genuine, effective civic science.

The three that I looked at were:
* Seafloor Explorer, a citizen science project in which ordinary people can help categorize animal life on the bottom of the northeast continental shelf
* Safecast, an independent organization that puts Geiger detectors in the hands of ordinary citizens to create better maps of radiation levels (and first brought to my attention by our TA, Becky!)
* SMART, a student-run program that emerged from a larger initiative to combat teen pregnancy rates in Minnesota high schools LINK

I distilled these traits into five ‘principles of civic science’:
1. Civic science needs to pull people from diverse backgrounds.
2. Civic science needs to involve real discussion of scientific concepts.
3. Civic science needs to maintain a connection to a larger purpose.
4. Civic science needs a low and level barrier to entry.
5. Civic science needs to leave participants with something more.

Here’s the link to my presentation slides and here’s the paper itself. Thanks to all for an educational, unusual semester.