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The Untapped Potential of Community Science: Part 1, Community Responsive Research Agendas

Category: Uncategorized

by Raj Pandya, Thriving Earth Exchange Program Director

Capsule Summary: Community science powerful, but there remains untapped potential. We need:

  • More communities and scientists involved,
  • Better inputs through increased intentionality and support, and
  • More follow-up on the outputs through synthesis and response.

Thriving Earth Exchange has been doing community science for over five years, and we’ve done over 100 projects. Each of those projects is an instance of science that is responsive to local civic priorities. Each project also provides a kind of local snapshot of the questions people have about science, the ways people want to use science, and the gap between the questions the science can answer and the questions people have. We know from talking to the scientists involved that many of the scientists on these projects think about that gap when they decide what kind of research to do next.

Of course, this didn’t start with Thriving Earth Exchange. Communities have been a driving force in scientific research for a long time. For example, activists who were patients, research partners and advocates helped create a research agenda for responding to AIDS in the 1980s and 90s. Around the same time, new treatments for pediatric diarrhea came out of research driven by the priorities of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Both of these examples show that community science is a mechanism for civic participation in guiding scientific research and setting research priorities.

As promising as this model is, there remains a lot of untapped potential. First, there isn’t enough community science going on. Second, community science is hit-or-miss: whether a community priority makes it into a research agenda depends on whether the community happens to connect with a scientist, whether the scientist includes those ideas in her research proposal and whether that proposal successfully competes with other proposals. Third, it isn’t equitable: given persistent disparities and biases, many historically marginalized, oppressed or neglected communities have a harder time connecting with scientists and influencing proposals. And when proposals do respond to priorities of diverse communities, they are less likely to be funded. Finally, community science is not a mainstream scientific activity, so it doesn’t have the infrastructure, support or influence that other ways of doing science have.

We can address all of this. A couple of ideas:

  1. More community science. We simply do not have enough community science going on to adequately represent the range of communities and people in this country. If we want to use community science to guide science, we need more communities and scientists doing community science.
  2. More intentionality for community science. Without intentionally engaging diverse publics and communities, and constantly looking to see who has been left out or chose not to participate and inviting them in, community science will replicate the inequities in science and in society at large. In fact, it could even make inequity worse by foregrounding the priorities and needs of more affluent, connected communities. Instead, we need to support community science that is driven from outside of academia—through organizations like Public Lab, Higher Ground and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.
  3. More support for community science. We can’t get to more community science and better representation in community science without supporting community science. This includes training, financial resources and recognition for the people who participate in community science, and more services to connect communities and scientists, like Thriving Earth Exchange.[1] We need graduate programs in community science, workshops for community leaders on how to engage with local science institutions, grants devoted to community science. Some of these exist – EPIC-N is a network for universities interested in community science, and UC Davis actually offers a graduate program focused on community science.
  4. More synthesis. Even if we did enough community science, we don’t have any efficient ways to collect and synthesize the learning from these different projects. What if there were a comprehensive nationwide survey of all community science projects? What if we created an online repository for community science, something like what the amazing SciStarter does for citizen science, that could be data-mined to discover common research themes? What if we hosted listening sessions on key topics, like the ones done for the last National Climate Assessment? What if we convened regional focus groups that would explore regional research priorities?
  5. More ways to respond. Once we know what the community priorities are, how do we redirect research toward those priorities? Can we ask federal agencies to devote a percentage of their efforts to community-identified priorities? Can we encourage private philanthropies to invest in research priorities that emerge from community input? Can we design requests for proposals and research fellowships around the research questions most relevant to community priorities? What about a new agency of applied and community science, charged with initiating, synthesizing and acting on community priorities? In the short term, can community leaders be invited to review proposals or research agendas as part of the peer review process? And, my favorite idea of all, can community groups get dollars they can spend to engage with scientists on their terms and on the subjects they deem important?

I’ll expand on this idea of public participation in spending on science in future blog. For now, I simply want to leave you with the idea that community science is a powerful tool for setting research priorities. We should do more.

[1] Yes, I did just argue for more Thriving Earth Exchange. Maybe it’s because I stand to gain, maybe it’s because Thriving Earth Exchange is a hammer and every problem looks like a nail, and maybe it’s because things like Thriving Earth Exchange are demonstrably good at this. I hope my motivations lie closer to the end of this list of possibilities.

Kelly McCarthy editor

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