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Starting Community Science Right: One Key Word and Five Key Questions

By Raj Pandya, Program Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

People often ask us what it takes to get a community science project off the ground. To me, it all comes down to one key word: priorities. Hands down, the most important thing about community science is that it begins and ends with community priorities. I had a mayor tell me that he was “tired of rich cities having priorities and poor cities having needs.”

Priorities are key for four reasons.

  • First, priorities are forward looking. When communities consider their priorities, they create a a vision for their future. Community science is about enabling that future.
  • Second, priorities are positive. To focus on priorities means focusing on what is good and how to build on it, rather than what is broken and how to overcome it.
  • Third, focusing on priorities supports a community’s right to determine its own destiny. Community science should affirm the dignity and self-determination of every community and thinking in terms of priorities helps do that.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a priority is active: it’s about doing something or changing something. Beginning and ending with priorities means getting things done.

What’s the best way to understand community priorities, and to determine how science can help advance them? These five key questions can help you begin—and end—community science in a good way.

  1. What do you really want? My favorite example of this came from a group an accountant in Spain. A city employee asked for help buying an automated street cleaner. The accountant asked, “Do you really want a street cleaner, or do you actually want clean streets?” That simple question redirected the whole effort and the city ended up creating a program that paid people experiencing low wealth to clean streets. (This story also changed my whole perspective on accounting.)
  2. What would be unacceptable? Before you can design a solution, you must know what is out-of-bounds. For instance, something that destroys tumors isn’t any good if it also kills too many healthy cells. A safety system that doubles the weight of the car probably isn’t viable. In Earth science, something that protects a community, but harms nature isn’t acceptable.
  3. What else? This is probably the most powerful question you can ask, and you should ask it often. For example, a community that wants to reduce flooding might start with something simple, like raising home or building sea walls. Asking what else might lead to thinking about green infrastructure. Asking what else again might lead to preventing upstream development, or even advocating for changes in policy. If you are trying to start things right, it helps to have a lot of options to choose from.  “What else” creates those options.
  4. Who Else? There are two versions of this question: who else will be affected and who else needs to be in the room? If you can, invite everyone affected. If you can’t – maybe everyone affected includes future generations, the rest of the world, or all living creatures – think about the impact on them.  For instance, the town of Eugene, Oregon wanted to develop a carbon reduction target. Asking who else, they aimed for a policy that would stabilize emissions for the world, 350 ppm, and calculated the emissions reductions a community their size would need to help the world reach that goal.
  5. What if we changed the rules? For example, the commissioner of Harris County, Texas was frustrated with federal policies that allocated funds for rebuilding according to a cost-benefit analysis. That formula meant that most of the money was allocated to rebuilding wealthier neighborhoods. He created a formula for rebuilding based on social vulnerability indices, which provided more resources for communities with less wealth. When we ask about changing the rules, we use science to create new opportunities.

I think, and I’ve seen, that by holding on to this key word, priorities, and riffing on these questions, you can build a successful community science project. Good luck!

Kelly McCarthy subscriber

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