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The untapped potential of community science: part 2, public participation in science policy

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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.

The untapped potential of community science: part 2, public participation in science policy

By Raj Pandya

Capsule summary:

  • The challenges we face now are both technical and ethical.
  • To solve these challenges, we need a combination of democratic wisdom and technical expertise.
  • For decades, the scientific community has held the power; it’s time to share some of that power with the people.

The 21st century is about dealing with global, complicated and intersecting challenges. Many of our scientific and technical advances, including artificial intelligence (AI), geoengineering and genetic engineering, come with a host of ethical and moral questions. Much of our previous scientific and technical progress has resulted in unintended consequences—think of fossil fuels and climate change or fertilizers and nutrient pollution. Often, these unintended consequences land disproportionately on certain people, raising ethical issues.

And yet, our future depends on science—whether its dealing with climate change, living sustainably, ensuring food security or protecting human and environmental health. What all this means, I think, is that if we are going to make progress in the future we need to get better at grappling with ethical dimensions and implications of science, even as we accelerate the pace at which we do science.

In a democracy, public engagement in science is the only legitimate way to grapple with the ethical dimensions of science while moving science into action. It’s also the best way to manage the moral dimensions of disproportionate impact. By inviting all people to have a role in decisions and solutions, we get closer to ensuring decisions and solutions are equitable. Science engagement, in this context, is not just learning about science, or participating in science. It is helping decide what science to do and what science to not do. To me, this sounds a lot like community science.

To put it another way: we need science to build a better future—one that is sustainable, resilient and healthy. But we also need wisdom to use that science well, and wisdom comes from the people. The best way to link the two is to engage people in science, as partners and guides. To ensure that the people have the experience to guide science and the opportunity to benefit from science, they need to participate in science. Ergo, community science.

If we don’t develop democratic approaches to guiding science, especially on morally complex topics like stem cell research, gene therapy and geoengineering, that science will likely proceed anyway, and we as a society will be worse off for it. Think about the rogue scientist who created the first gene-edited human baby, or the risks of some totalitarian regime deploying AI or geoengineering against its own citizens.

I realize that inviting the public to guide science, even to weigh in on funding decisions, is a little scary. What if the democratic process shuts down legitimate, valuable work? What if anti-vax activists overwhelm the ballot box, or an apathetic public simply refuses to engage in thoughtful decision making about geoengineering? What if good ideas are buried in the bureaucracy of public engagement, like an endless public comment period with almost no ouput?

These are valid concerns, and they can be dealt with. A recent project run by my friend Mahmud Farooque convened a public forum around policy for investing in asteroid defense. Organizers had no trouble rounding up a representative sample of people and helping them engage in the issue—apathy wasn’t an issue. Through deliberative dialogue, anti-rationalist views were countered by more thoughtful deliberation. Facilitation helped the group get to a consensus by the end of a single day. We know it can work—we just need to scale it.

There are ways to do this at scale. The National Climate Assessments are collecting input from decision-makers and using that to guide future assessments. Universities and science museums have been experimenting with innovative public participation approaches on a regional scale, on topics like extreme heat. And looking back, there are great historical models for federally organized public guidance on science, like the Office of Technology Assessment .

Simply put, I am suggesting that ordinary people—non-scientists—should have a direct and powerful voice in setting scientific priorities. We need to take care that we include all communities, of course, especially communities that have historically been neglected. And yes, that includes budgets.

Kelly McCarthy editor

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