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Recipes for a ‘Potluck’ Model of Science Engagement

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By TEX Director, Raj Pandya

In a previous blog, I talked about the loading dock, the dominant model for science engagement and applications since WWII. Honestly, it isn’t really fair to call the loading dock a model for science engagement. It is more about disengagement: the loading dock assumes that scientists just need to produce the science, publish it, and somehow it will make its way into society without much effort on their behalf. At any rate, I talked about the need to move beyond the loading dock toward a more diverse and inclusive model of science engagement that I call the ‘potluck.’ In this column, I’m looking at what that means in practice.

First, though: Why I think a word like potluck or portfolio is the right one. While I am critical of some aspects of the loading dock, I think it is a mistake to abandon it completely. We do need a space for curiosity-driven research led by brilliant people who aren’t constrained by how the research will serve society. That is one dish at the potluck and one piece of the portfolio.

But a portfolio with one stock is pretty risky, and a potluck with one dish won’t be very welcoming for everyone. What about the vegetarians and the gluten free folks (can you tell I live in Boulder?). In fact, a one-dish potluck is an ontological contradiction in itself and doesn’t really represent cooking well—cooking isn’t something that only happens one way, with just one dish. Notwithstanding what we all learned about THE scientific method in eighth grade, the idea of there being one way of doing science is just as misguided as proposing only one way to cook food.

Finally, and most importantly, a one-dish approach would be boring and almost useless. There is no room for change and improvement, and people would stop going after a while. The same goes for science—it is more innovative, more resilient, more welcoming, and more relevant with a potluck of approaches.

Fortunately, we have lots of new dishes being added to the science potluck, and they are helping move the practice of science beyond the loading dock. Here are some of my favorite recent examples.

  • Two graduate students in England were overwhelmed the by the number of new galaxies being discovered and the monumental task of classifying them all. Computers couldn’t do the visual recognition, so they had to do it by hand. To speed up the classification, they put the images online, prepared a short tutorial about galaxy classification and crowdsourced the work.
  • A woman in an economically struggling neighborhood was alarmed by plans to expand a waste incinerator in her neighborhood, so she approached several local universities to ask for help testing the air quality and mapping traffic patterns. She actually called up professors and met with them to get them interested and see if they had the right skills to work on this stuff. Together, they designed a measurement program and collected data.
  • An early career scientist at a national lab invited several local indigenous leaders to the lab for a workshop on the connection between the lab’s science and indigenous knowledge. She invited lab leaders to be on panels with indigenous leaders and held informal gatherings before and after the meeting. She planned the meeting in partnership with indigenous thinkers, and they intentionally mixed up the format so it included typical scientific elements and elements that were common to indigenous meetings.
  • TEX invited community leaders from several California cities to the AGU fall meeting. We hosted a panel of city leaders to talk about how they used Earth and space science, took our guests on a tour of some of the relevant sessions, and held an informal mixer where they could interact with Earth and space scientists.
  • TEX project launch workshops invite community leaders to talk about their community—its goals, assets, challenges and aspirations. Scientists are invited to listen, ask questions and learn more. In the second part of the workshop, the scientists and community leaders brainstorm ways that Earth science might be useful to those cities. After generating a list of possibilities, they pick one that is feasible for and interesting to the community, has a timeline of 18 months or less, and can engage a volunteer scientist. Wah-lah: New TEX projects are born.
  • A summer internship—the standard sort that invite students to do research at a lab or in a department—was redesigned so that the students spent part of their research time in a community, interviewing community members to understand local priorities. They were supported by faculty from the social sciences, who helped the students learn to do the interviews and even provided some introductions. Of course, those faculty members were part of the research project that came out of the interviews.

I hope this list does two things. First, I hope it helps you see that we are already moving well beyond the loading dock. Second, I hope it gives you some ideas for how you push beyond the loading dock in your own work.

Did you find a recipe you liked? Can we tempt you to contribute your own, by sharing your ideas on Community Science Connect? Either way, we hope to see you at the next potluck.

Sarah Wilkins subscriber

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