Community Connections: Scientist-Citizens Have a Critical Role to Play

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | August 10, 2015, 1:38 pm EDT
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Many community organizations struggle to be heard in our noisy democracy. Even on critical issues such as air and water quality, health hazards from chemicals, local food policy, environmental justice for disadvantaged communities, and the rising challenges of global warming, their voices and needs are often drowned out by those who argue that addressing public health, safety and the environment is too expensive. That those concerns get in the way of economic growth. And too often, the views of community organizations are dismissed because their arguments are not framed in technical terms.

So let’s ask some simple questions. Will connecting scientists with community organizations help to level the playing field so that their voices can be heard? Can scientist-citizens, working with non-scientist citizens, not only improve the ability of communities to participate in making public policy, but make those policies better?

Houston town hall forum

The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS is exploring these questions with a diverse group of scientific and non-scientific organizations from around the United States. A series of online events will culminate in a September 26th town hall webcast discussion in Houston to hear about different experiences of connecting scientists and community groups.

We don’t just need to learn from success stories. We need to hear about the barriers, the challenges, the false starts, and sometimes failures of attempts to connect. And, we don’t want to just preach to the choir. We want scientists who have never done this type of inclusive research, and community members who are hesitant to trust the scientific establishment, to join in the conversation and voice their concerns and suggest ways to move forward. That’s how we, collectively, can learn about how to continue to grow opportunities for connections that really work.

Listen firstcommunity meeting

We know that in building scientist-community partnerships, listening to one another is a big part of challenge. As a scientist, truly connecting at a local level is not a matter of giving a talk or presenting to a broader audience. It is actively listening and trying to understand what people in the community experience. What they observe. What they need to overcome to have their voices heard. And it is not just how my research per se might be helpful, but how bringing my experience as a scientist to the table might be relevant.

I am a marine ecologist with expertise in population dynamics. But I have spent much of my career looking at data, and working on science advice for environmental regulations. That means I bring those skills to a partnership, not just research results in the marine environment.

At the same time, listening to community organizers working for environmental justice fascinates me. I need to hear about the challenges they confront and the inspiring work that they do to improve the health and safety of communities on the fencelines of truly scary polluted areas in places like Houston. I can start to help by trying to understand their perspective. Then ask, how is it that I can play a role in elevating their voices? Is it looking at data, or thinking about how to collect new data? Or is it navigating the regulatory process? Or raising awareness among my fellow scientists? But I need to remember to ask—and listen, not assert that I know everything. In other words, build a partnership.

Our partners’ stories

Over the next several weeks, we have asked some of our partners to write about their experiences and perspectives as we lead up to our town hall forum. This series of blogs by community organizers and engaged scientists is intended to spark new thinking about how we can work together.

I continually hear from young scientists that they want to have an impact. They want to get out of the lab or from behind the computer. The opportunities to make a difference in the world, beyond the research that we do, are endless. And they are local. So watch this space. And join us in Houston and online in September.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

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  • Richard Solomon

    I look forward to reading about what other scientists are doing to engage with issues and the community in which they live and work. Once I retired in 2010 I found that I have more time to do that now in regards to various issues that affect the health and safety of my community….as well as the quality of life.