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Community-Driven Science: Science of the Future?

Category: Uncategorized

By Kelly Sanks
Ph.D. Candidate in Geological and Earth Sciences/Geosciences at University of Arkansas


My lifelong goal is to conduct scientific research that makes a tangible impact on people’s lives. In a time of environmental change, it has never been more pressing to bring scientific research to action. I have been fortunate to have the first scientific project I worked on potentially influence policy and bring about a positive change in one community. The findings of the project will be used in the first ever feasibility report to gain carbon credits for a proposed restoration of the Herring River Estuary in Cape Cod, MA. Because of this, I am deeply invested in making all my scientific endeavors socially relevant.

However, as a graduate student, it does not always seem feasible to take my research and have it impact lives because of the strong push to finish school and publish papers. Determined to learn more about how to get involved, I participated in two TEX workshops at AGU this year. I have never been more certain of how feasible and important community science really is.

Have you ever wondered how to get involved in community science? Engaging in community science often seems like a daunting task. When asked what is holding scientists back from becoming involved in community science, a few common answers arose:

  • Community science is time consuming
  • How do you even form relationships with community members?
  • Where does the funding come from?
  • How do you get around scientific jargon barriers?

It is no wonder many scientists never think to engage in scientific action with the communities they work in. However, what about the pros of community based science? Often times, all communities need is a little help to get the ball rolling.

I was a student volunteer at the TEX project launch workshop this past December. The workshop was hosted at AGU and featured ten different communities. The goal was to have the community ambassadors describe their problems and then work with scientists to determine a solution. Each community teamed up with multiple different scientists, graduate students, and even undergraduates. Since the proposal for the project was created on site, all that TEX has left to do is find one or more scientists who are willing to work with these communities.

One of the communities, located in Claireborne, LA, has been living with ongoing health and environmental issues related to air, water, and noise pollution from a local highway. Sitting down and listening to the members, it was enlightening to see just how much they know about the actual science of their problem. They just don’t have the resources available to address the issue. In a matter of hours, the input and ideas from the community members combined with the expertise of different scientists allowed the community-scientist team to come up with a plan of attack to address their environmental concerns.

Amazingly, scientists can typically work remotely from their home base just a few hours a week. This small time commitment can make all the difference for these communities and puts minimal stress on the scientists. Sometimes it is as simple as writing a blog post about your findings, which then makes your research available to the communities that need your work to back them up.

Speaking with two community members, who were beyond frustrated with their living situation, and listening to ten different communities share the community-scientist formed plan of attack, I am confident that through mutual respect and scientists and community members working together, life changing results will come about. As I was leaving the workshop, one community member even stopped me to thank me for volunteering my time. She was beyond grateful to finally have a glimmer of hope for the community she has been a part of since she was born. The feeling I had when she thanked me was the reason I became a scientist.

I think the most valuable insight I gained from attending the workshop was that the community members knew so much about the problems they were facing. Because they have already spent extensive time researching the issues their communities were facing, not only could they explain the science behind all of their problems, but they also had ideas about how they could fix the issues. Sometimes the communities already have most of the data they need; they just need help putting it together in a meaningful way. This makes it extremely easy and fun for scientists to collaborate with them.

At the end of the day, the excitement and hope, once driven out by constant refusal of government officials to address their problems, re-entered the eyes of the members. All it took was a few scientists sitting down, listening, and showing genuine concern for their problems. The result was mind blowing.

Even though the community members now have hope, there is still a lot more work to be done by both the scientists and the community members. The projects typically last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years and involve work from both the scientists and the community members, potentially leading to a long-lasting, positive change in their community.

By just reaching out to people in the community you work in, or reaching out to TEX, getting involved has never be easier. But what about the concerns displayed by scientists?

  • The time commitment can be as small as a few hours a week (not that demanding)
  • Reaching out to TEX can help you connect with communities (super easy!)
  • Funding: these projects are pro bono, but can typically be done with resources that are already available to the scientist.
  • Community members already understand the science behind the issues they are facing leaving little to no jargon barrier

Making community-based science feasible for all scientists, even graduate students, to engage in!

mgoodwin editor

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