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Science is Knowledge, Knowledge is Power…and vice-versa

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya, TEX Director


Science is entangled with issues of power, and community science – either explicitly or implicitly – is about exploring and challenging that entanglement. Grappling with these power dynamics can make for an uncomfortable conversation, for scientists especially but also for community leaders, but it is an important conversation to have.

When I was a brand new assistant professor at West Chester University (my parents wanted to know who I was assistant to), I got interested in service learning. I was motivated by a vague desire to do some good in a way that leveraged science and the idea that group projects would be better pedagogy. I had heard about a woman, Zulene Mayfield, who lived in Chester, Penn. (For some reason that I don’t understand but seems very East Coast, Chester was due South of West Chester.) Ms. Mayfield was something of a local legend for her work to prevent a medical incinerator from being built in her predominantly African-American community. When I approached her, she suggested a class project to help her community tackle their next issue – I think it might have been another incinerator – and I was nervous. I remember mumbling something about my science being more theoretical and less applied, and that scientists were more about learning how things work than using what we learn to take sides. I remember her reply, over the phone, “Young man, if you aren’t willing to take sides, get involved, and do something with what you learn, why bother learning it?”

 For me, and as much as I dislike the phrase (it’s the kind of phrase that makes other kids want to take your lunch money), there was a lot to unpack from her words. First – it was uncomfortable and I remember it. I think we have the opportunity for the most profound learning when we are uncomfortable. Steve Akerman, one of my favorite people, has a nice analogy for this – its why training wheels don’t teach kids to ride as well as those strider bikes – you need to fall down to learn to stay upright. Second is the implicit conversation about power, privilege, and race. Chester was picked for the medical incinerator because someone thought they didn’t have power to stop it. That assumption is tied to race and economics. Contrary to expectations, the community tapped into science, found ways to collect the data they needed, and argued successfully against the incinerator in court. Science is knowledge, and knowledge is power.

But here is the tricky part – doing science also depends on having power. Doing science takes money and resources, and that comes down to power and privilege. When Chester residents wanted to stop the first incinerator, they didn’t have instruments or labs they needed, and grants for instruments and labs weren’t available to community groups. In short, they didn’t have the power to do the science that might give them the power to stop the incinerator. (I know that is a confusing, almost circular sentence, but that captures the kind of catch-22 they found themselves in). To break Ms. Mayfield worked and her friends worked with scientists and students from a predominantly white university located nearby.

Walter Orr Roberts, who founded the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, said “it is a privilege to do basic science, but in exchange for that privilege we have a responsibility to contribute to society.” I have loved that quote forever, and I still do. But I want to go farther, now. I would say that doing science is an aspect of privilege, and science is an asset of the privileged class. As members of that privileged class, we have a responsibility to share our privilege and spread its benefits. For me, it’s the difference between doing science for people – while holding onto power and privilege for ourselves – and doing science with people, and sharing some of that power and privilege.

For me, sharing the power and privilege of knowledge is a key tenet at the heart of community science. Ways to do that include co-designing the science, sharing the data, co-managing the budget, and setting priorities together. (For more examples of how you can share power in practice, please see 10 tips for engaging communities, a compendium of suggestions from successful TEX projects.)

In the long run, sharing power is better for science. It invites new people with new skills into science, and it generates new ideas. It creates new allies for science. It makes science more relevant personally (people are more likely to know a scientist) and socially (science is more likely have an impact). It is also good for society – there is still be great basic research, but there is also be much more attention to the application and translation of that basic research into real-world decisions. In fact, working with people to identify questions and design studies means that science can address a much broader set of real-world decisions that are more relevant to more people, as opposed to the real-world priorities of the privileged.

In the short run, sharing power might be hard for science and scientists. It feels like a loss of power, a loss of prestige, and it runs counter to the institutional structures that currently preserve the power of science. All of this is already uncomfortable enough, but it gets more uncomfortable when we realize that power and who has it are linked to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. That means when we do community science and find ways to share power, we are also dealing (at least implicitly, but often explicitly) with issues including race, gender, and sexual identity. And that connects to the idea of privilege, and for some of us, unearned privilege. And if that isn’t uncomfortable, I don’t know what is. But again, those places that make us uncomfortable are opportunities for learning.

Bottom Line: Doing community science means dealing with privilege and that includes some discomfort – mostly for scientists. To them, and this includes me, I say, in the most compassionate way possible – get over it. That doesn’t sound compassionate, so let me try that again: You can get over it, you have the intellectual prowess and strength of character to deal with this discomfort. Not only that, but by getting over it you will learn and grow, you will show the way for others, you will invite new people into science, you will improve the science you do, and you will contribute to a better world. It is worth it.


mgoodwin editor

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