Announced at the White House conference in January 2012, Civic Science is a signature initiative of the American Commonwealth Partnership. Civic science, developed over a number of years, is a mode of inquiry and action which integrates scientific approaches and other ways of knowing with civic agency and democratic practices. It seeks to address “grand challenges” like climate, health, early childhood education, and sustainable agriculture while simultaneously deepening democracy. Below is an overview and a short description written by two principal investigators, Gwen Ottinger and Nick Jordan. The civic science initiative has also launched a website with case studies and other background materials: http://civic-science.org/.
A Call to Action:
Civic Science and the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century
A White Paper for the National Science Foundation Workshop
October 2-3, 2014
Sherburne Abbott, Harry Boyte, William Doherty, Nicholas Jordan, Tai Mendenhall, Gwen Ottinger, Scott Peters, & John P. Spencer
“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d…a great word, whose history remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”
-Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
A democratic society requires a democratic people with the habits, knowledge and dispositions to work together across differences to address common challenges and negotiate a shared way of life. Today, as the challenges our democracy faces are multiplying, democratic capacities are diminishing. We need a new way of doing business – and developing ourselves as heirs and architects of the great word, “Democracy.”
Science was once widely understood by practitioners and the larger citizenry as a wellspring of democratic energy and a constellation of democratic practices (Jewett 2012). Today, many fields of science are generating an explosive increase in our knowledge about the world. But the democratic energies and practices of science have receded from view. At the same time, society is beset with “knowledge wars”; politics is bitterly polarized; people feel powerless; and skepticism about public, economic, and civic institutions has dramatically increased. We are in danger of becoming a nation of democracy’s spectators, not democracy’s co-creators.
We are convinced that civic science—scientific inquiry that offers opportunities for participants to develop their capacity to work across differences, create common resources, and build a democratic way of life—offers hope beyond this impasse. Civic science is a framework and set of democratic and scientific practices that bring citizen scientists and lay citizens together in ways which build respect, that enhance capacities to act, and that generate positive public outcomes.
In the report below, we describe three case studies which show that civic science can bridge enormous differences. For instance, the Family Education Diabetes Series (FEDS) initiative, a supplement to standard health care for members of the American Indian community in the Twin Cities, addresses diabetes. Chronic conditions such as diabetes can be considered “wicked problems”— problems facing society that are daunting in their complexity. Such problems often generate high distrust between scientists and minority cultural groups (Fadiman 1997). FEDS was created through collaborative work between health scientists and providers and the Indian community—from early efforts in relationship-building and establishing mutual respect and trust, to brainstorming the program’s design, educational foci and format, public visibility, implementation, and ongoing modifications. Quantitative evaluations of FEDS have found significant improvement across key objective diabetes-related measures (e.g., weight, metabolic control). Qualitative evaluations (conducted within the culturally-consistent context of talking circles) have also found that the community-owned nature of the program—and the social support and interpersonal accountability that this encompasses—is perceived as the principal driver of these improvements and change (Mendenhall et al., 2010, 2012).
Building on such case studies, this report is a working document for the National Science Foundation Civic Science Workshop, October 2-3, 2014. We provide an overview of what civic science is. We describe several case studies on grand challenges of our day—sustainable agriculture, the achievement gap in education, and challenges of health care—which show commonalities of how to put civic science into action. Part of the workshop will explore and analyze these lessons. More broadly, we will examine obstacles to civic science in our funding, educational, and policy systems. And we will strategize about how obstacles can be overcome, and how we might organize an international civic science community of practice as a way to address the grand challenges of our time and awaken the potential of our democracy.
What is Civic Science?
Gwen Ottinger & Nicholas Jordan
Civic science is a method of inquiry into important contemporary issues that enriches democracy by bringing citizens from all backgrounds and disciplines – not just scientists – together in shared projects that analyze current conditions, envision a better future, and devise a pathway to that future. Civic science is both an approach to generating knowledge and a democratic practice. In civic science, scientists express democratic citizenship through their scientific work: they engage in democratic world-building efforts as scientists. Such efforts include democratic projects in which broad-based civic groups are working to impact complex problems in, for instance, agriculture, education, and health care, the three areas emphasized below. By linking scientific work to these democratic efforts, scientific inquiry expands, taking a crucial civic role. The fundamental scientific question of “how does the world work” is situated in the context of democratic inquiry into a critical question—“What should we do in the face of complex problems?” Civic science, thus, integrates its work closely with the “purposive” disciplines of arts, humanities, and design, which ask fundamental questions about what is good and just, encouraging us to envision and debate ways of relating and living as civic agents.
Civic science is like “transdisciplinary” science (e.g., NRC 2014), but expands and enriches such frameworks by closely linking the practice of science to democracy and to other ways of knowing and learning from arts, humanities and design traditions and fields. Similarly, Civic Science is like community based participatory research (CBPR) and social movement-based “citizen science” in that it focuses on complex, pressing, real-world problems, and values diverse ways of knowing. However, in ways that usefully challenge theory and practice in CBPR, civic science intentionally and explicitly aims to promote democracy by framing scientific inquiry as an opportunity for participants to develop their capacity to work across differences, create common resources, and negotiate a shared democratic way of life.
As a democratic and scientific practice, we argue civic science has the unique potential to advance public deliberation, collective action, and public policy on pressing issues like energy security, climate change, sustainable agriculture, poverty, and health care. These and other “wicked problems,” require not only the insights of numerous academic disciplines and situated knowledge, but also approaches to governance that are not paralyzed by uncertainty and can adapt to new information as it emerges. Effective approaches to wicked problems must also explicitly engage purposive questions such as “what should we do?” to work through political stalemate. Civic science’s combination of knowledge production and democratic practice is thus clearly called for.
Civic science draws from research and theory in three areas: science and technology studies (STS), civic studies, and complex systems theory. Together, they provide the rationale for civic science and point to the benefits of pursuing civic science as an approach for furthering knowledge and democracy.
Science and technology studies argues that values are inherent in all scientific inquiry (e.g. Sarewitz 2004) and demonstrates that knowledge, ways of knowing, and the research efforts of non-scientists can contribute meaningfully to our understanding of wicked problems (e.g. Corburn 2005; Fischer 2000). This line of thinking establishes the need for policy-relevant science to be a collaborative, transdisciplinary effort. We argue that more recently emerging fields, which rely heavily on co-production of knowledge, such as “sustainability science,” demonstrate these tenets.
Civic studies posits that “civic agency” is essential to a well functioning democracy. This field—which includes not only the social sciences but also the humanities and political philosophy—views citizens as co-creators of civic life and stresses their collective capacity for negotiating and shaping social and political environments (Ostrom 1990; Calhoun 1992; Boyte 2011; Tufts Civic Studies Institute Curriculum 2013; Levine 2014). Civic studies provides a framework for conceptualizing how scientific inquiry can serve as a democratic practice, and for theorizing about the contributions of scientific practice to democratic culture.
Complex systems theory provides a framework for characterizing wicked problems and holds that adaptive and foresight-based governance approaches, in which scientists are central participants, are necessary to make progress on them (Liu et al. 2007). This theory strongly underscores the necessity of employing a democratic, agency-building approach to science in order to confront wicked problems.
Overview and what is civic science?
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Calhoun C. Ed. (1992). Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Civic Studies Curriculum (2013). On web at http://activecitizen.tufts.edu/research/civic-studies/summer-institute/.
Coburn, J. (2005) Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Fadiman, A. (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision Between Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Fischer, F. (2000). Citizens, Experts and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge . Durham: Duke University Press.
Jewett, A. (2012). Science, Democracy and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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