Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming at the lab bench, in the tissue culture hood, at your Excel spreadsheet, wondering how your science and data would be relevant to the world outside your academic confines? There’s no shame in acknowledging this. For as long as I’ve had a career outside of academia, I’ve received an inquiry almost every couple of weeks from mid- and early-career scientists, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, scientific and professional organizations, asking about ways to participate in policy and public engagement around science.
The good news is that the need for scientists to step out of their labs is unmatched, the desire from communities in working with researchers is immense, and the opportunities to undertake such partnerships are plenty.
Learning from doing
To help the eager and the apprehensive alike, the Center for Science and Democracy just this month released a guide: Scientist-Community Partnerships: A Guide for Successful Partnerships. The guide is designed to assist scientists in considering how their expertise can be brought to bear to address community needs and concerns. It is a product of almost two years of discussions, meetings, webinars, forums, commissioned case studies, and surveys. [We’re still collecting examples if you have your own scientist-community partnership story to share].
The guide also builds upon our own test projects in Southern California, Minnesota, and Houston where we connected scientists with communities on issues as wide ranging as fracking, food, and chemicals. The distillation of these findings are captured in the guide to elucidate the benefits that such collaborations can yield and concrete steps to forging a relationship with local communities.
We also delve into common challenges that such socially-relevant scientific collaborations can face and ways of overcome them. Finally, we have a suite of resources and success stories to inspire you to experience the sweet rewards of community partnerships yourself.
Institutional reforms needed
For far too long and in too many academic disciplines, our institutional structures have failed to reward community-relevant science and recognize the various forms of knowledge and expertise. Tenure, promotion, and grant funding processes only pay lip service to broader impacts of research, at best. Not only are these systems a disservice to marginalized communities who most need access to science, they also hinder viable career paths and civic education for early career scientists.
While institutional change at universities and science funding agencies is what’s ultimately needed to reform the way we value, support, and encourage scientists to look beyond the ivory tower, we can’t afford to wait. The challenges we face for the protection of the environment, to fight for social and racial equity and justice, and to help safeguard health and well-being for all demand that we listen to and help address community concerns.
Building partnerships that sustain
Scientist-community collaborations can take many forms, from presenting your research at public meetings to identifying credible and independent sources of relevant information to co-developing research projects with community members. A collaboration that is built on respect, transparency, open communication, and mutually defined goals has the potential to avert the next Flint, another chemical disaster, and one more unanticipated impact of fracking. The time to forge partnerships with your local communities is now.