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How participatory is enough?

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Two years ago, after a seminar on community-based participatory research, a colleague raised her hand. She was troubled, because she felt like whenever she tried to introduce small participatory elements into her research, she was told it wasn’t enough. It reminded me of high school, where every time I liked a band, I was told that they “used to be cool, before they sold out.”

More recently, we wanted to introduce scientists to ways they could reach out to community groups to start figuring out how science and community priorities intersect. We were hoping to introduce ways of interacting that set the stage for community science better than the ubiquitous power point talk and questions. Someone pointed out that, if even when scientists reach out in ways that encourage participation, they are still setting the overall agenda and that is not totally participatory.

The common element is how do you make on-ramps to community science, that welcome people without castigating them for not arriving sooner or doing it better. Our answer is a pragmatic. It is ok to be only a little bit participatory, as long as you are up front about what you want to control as a scientist, and where you are willing to work more collaboratively. Then, partners can choose whether they want to work with you or not. If TEX is a starfish, the legs can be different lengths.

In fact, one of the useful things TEX could do is help explore the different levels of participation and the costs and benefits for both communities and scientists. In fact, one of our advisory board members, Ryan Kelly, and his graduate student, Erin Ryan, are working on exactly that. Pretty neat!

raj pandya editor

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