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Priorities, Not Needs: Reframing Science Engagement

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya


A mayor once said to me, “I am tired of big cities having priorities and small communities having needs.”  I’ve also heard one of our Thriving Earth Advisory Board members, Michael Burns, say, “Poor communities are poor, not stupid.”

That is why, at our project launch workshops or in our scoping process, we begin with what communities are proud of, what they are good at, and where they want to go.  We try to celebrate capability instead of wallowing in deficits.

All this got me thinking: How much do implicit ideas of deficit creep into our work with communities—especially communities we aren’t part of? As scientists, is it possible that we sometimes assume that, because a community lacks access to science, they also lack a broader knowledge and insight needed to make good decisions?

What would it look like if we were to fully examine that assumption?  What if we approached science engagement from an assumption that all communities are smart, capable, and have the wisdom and capacity to make sound decisions about their future?  What if we assumed the primary thing holding communities back is external? What if our job, as scientists, were to ensure that all communties—including, or perhaps especially, the communities who have been historically marginalized—have the tools, resources and power to ask and investigate their own scientific questions. What if we took for granted that they had the wisdom, insight and capacity to use that information to make their own decisions?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that communities don’t sometimes make bad decisions. It is also probably true that poorer communities and communities of color, face more obstacles when they make decisions and often have fewer good options to choose from because of structural inequity. Nor do I want to argue that communities should be able to do whatever they want, regardless of the harm to the planet or their neighbors. What I do want to argue is that if we began science engagement from an assumption of community capability, rather than community need, we could substantively reframe the way we interact with communities, resulting in science that is better for communities, scientists, and the planet.

What if we could start over? What would science look like? It could be revolutionary.

  • We wouldn’t be using the term outreach, we’d be building partnerships.
  • We wouldn’t measure only what people don’t know, we’d measure what they already know.
  • We’d stop training future scientists and start nurturing humans who do science. That means that everyone – non-scientists and scientists alike – would have the opportunity to explore how science fits into the human experience. Science education would go even further in welcoming all students, not just students who want to become scientists.
  • Science communication wouldn’t just focus on how to deliver scientific messages to an audience, it would also teach ways for scientists to listen to and learn from the audience.
  • Our work wouldn’t be judged only by other scientists in our fields, it would also be judged by its value and use to people outside of our field.
  • We wouldn’t only fund communities to tackle priorities we set; we’d also fund communities to tackle the priorities they set for themselves. For example, one of the first Thriving Earth projects was crowdfunded from within the community. That meant the project was answerable to the people in the neighborhood, not to some external agency or donor.
  • Broader impact wouldn’t be the second criterion in NSF proposals—it’d be the first. And it would be judged not by scientists, but by the people the project aims to impact.
  • Funding wouldn’t be given only to scientists who work with communities, it would also go to communities who work with scientists. If you want to be radical, maybe we’d provide the funding directly to the communities and let them use those funds to support scientific investigations around their questions.
  • We wouldn’t conflate scientific thinking with the expensive tools, specialized language and largely white-middle-class norms that are part of modern science. Instead, we’d recognize broad elements of empiricism, experimentalism and critical thinking that are shared by many cultures and histories.

This may sound like a lot to ask from scientists, but we are a community, too. What would it look like if we stopped believing in our own deficits and started embracing our own capability to do the right thing?

mgoodwin editor


Jackie James CreedonJun 18, 2019 at 11:22 AM

Im all for giving funding to the community, and all of your points are spot on. However, from a community perspective what we need is to BELIEVE that we can win. Ultimately, it is the community that needs to fight their own fight.. scientists or other activists that won (eg. Erin Brockovich or Lois Gibbs) cant do it for us. All these people can help but ultimately its up to the people in the community., WE can provide the tools and training , courage, hope and belief..its not easy but it can be done. We know.. cause we won in Tonawanda, and believe me it wasn’t easy. But it is possible. This is what communities need to know more than anything.

Don KentJun 30, 2019 at 10:43 AM

Outstanding, Raj. Our thinking at Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park is aligned with your thinking, and has made headway on many of the points within our immediate control. In particular, we speak of partnerships which explicitly recognize the capabilities, and the necessity of, the community. Also, we are committed to de-mystifying science; science as process rather than an academic degree.

Keep challenging and innovating, Raj.


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