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The Untapped Potential Community Science: Part 3, Science Literacy

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This is the second in a three-part blog series on gaps in science engagement by Thriving Earth Exchange program director Raj Pandya.  Find part 1 linked here and part 2 here.

The Untapped Potential Community Science: Part 3, Science Literacy

By Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

Capsule Summary: Science literacy shouldn’t just be about understanding, but participating and guiding science.

Science engagement spans a variety of formats, from fairly traditional engagement that is driven by scientists (think, for example, of someone delivering a talk at a Rotary Club), through more dynamic modes of interaction that allow a give-and-take between scientists and the public (Pub Night), through direct participation in scientific data collection and analysis (citizen science), to the kind of interaction where community leaders and scientists work together to design and carry out locally relevant science—what organizations like Public Lab and Thriving Earth Exchange call community science.

What is untapped in all of these is the opportunity for public engagement that actually informs and guides policy for science. In other words, science engagement is largely built around helping people understand, use or benefit from science. But, what if the purpose of science engagement wasn’t just to use science, but to help people guide science and influence research, including through the power of the purse. That, I think, the next frontier for science engagement. In fact, I think it may well be the next frontier of science.

In other blogs in this series, I’ve talked about how community science can guide research, and how research ethics can benefit from the guidance that comes with community participation. This approach also sets a new standard for science literacy: Science literacy becomes the capacity to participate substantively in science policy discussions. It means our goals for science education and engagement aren’t just understanding science, or even using science in decision-making. Instead, the goal of scientific literacy is about empowering people to weigh in on the direction of science, the use of science, and even the goals of science. There are hints of this idea in the emergent idea of community science literacy, and the idea is included in the  in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Of course, this makes the stakes for science engagement even higher—if science engagement fails, policy for science fails. This approach also shares some power that the scientific community has traditionally held with to the broader community of people.

Community science is ideally and uniquely suited to help with all of this. In fact, over 83% of the community leaders who participated in Thriving Earth Exchange projects reported feeling more comfortable with science, so this all helps with more traditional ideas of science literacy. For the new definition of literacy, participating in local decisions about scientific priorities is great preparation for participating in national decisions. For sharing power, scientists learn to be more collaborative by doing community science. And finally, community science can build greater public interest in and support for science, so sharing power needn’t be a zero sum game.

And if you are a scientist, and these arguments for a more ambitious standard for science literacy doesn’t convince you, try this one: no one votes for what they don’t understand.

Kelly McCarthy editor

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