Civic Science Workshop (October 2-4, 2014)

Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College

The following report is a personal reflection and does not convey the full range of perspectives present at the meeting.

The workshop took place in the National Science Foundation. A diverse group of scientists, professors, students, community organizers, leaders in cooperative extension, humanity center and science museum directors, federal administrators, program directors from the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Health, and others, spent two days in intense and productive discussion of civic science and its relevance to the complex problems of our time, October 2-3.

The workshop was supported by an NSF grant, with additional support from the University of Iowa, Augsburg College, Imagining America, and Syracuse Universities. John Spencer of the Delta Center served as PI on the NSF grant, and the organizing team for the meeting and its immediate aftermath included Sherburne Abbott, Harry Boyte, Nick Jordan, Gwen Ottinger, Scott Peters, and Gerald Taylor.

Collective challenges emphasized in the framing White Paper include large problems facing humanity like health, climate change, education, and agriculture, what the Kettering Foundation calls “problems in democracy.” Challenges also include “problems of democracy” such as polarization; widespread feelings of powerlessness; declining trust in public institutions; and forces which threaten free inquiry and access to public knowledge. Overall, these generate a crisis of democracy itself around the world. Democracy’s advance can no longer be taken for granted. The website gives background at

The workshop helped to clarify civic science as an approach to scientific inquiry which revitalizes the democratic purposes and practices of science; aims to make substantial progress on large problems and science-related controversies while building empowering democracy in science and society; and affirms the crucial importance of free inquiry and a commonwealth of knowledge to democracy.

Civic science stresses civic agency and civic empowerment approaches which recognize community assets and diverse ways of knowing. Such approaches conceive of scientific knowledge as a vital public resource which should be “on tap not on top” in public problem solving. Scientists active in such problem solving need ground-level skills and habits of relational public work and strategic thinking if scientific discoveries are to live effectively and democratically in the world. Janie Hipp, who directs an indigenous food initiative among Indian tribes based at the University of Arkansas, pointed out that these skills are needed everywhere.

John Spencer, founding director of the Delta Center, described breakthroughs in scientific research on early childhood development and learning, especially the concept of “mindfulness,” or the importance of children developing “executive function” which allows children to adapt to new and changing situations. For such science to be integrated into a national movement for developing new public will around early education requires scientists also learning democratic skills such as understanding local contexts and collaborating with a wide variety of interests and stakeholders.

Cathann Kress, Vice President for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State, described how Iowa cooperative extension – the large system of campus and county-based educators in Iowa and around the country – is seeking to revitalize the original concepts and practices of extension as democratic capacity building and deeply relational work engaging citizens, moving away from the “expert knows best,” information transfer approach dominant in recent years. Jane Schuchardt, director of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, also participated.

Xolela Mangcu, a sociologist and public intellectual in South Africa, observed that western interventions on medical problems such as HIV AIDS make matters worse if they ignore local community cultures and capacities. Paul Markham of the Gates Foundation agreed, adding that the great challenge for western donors is to recognize the importance of people’s civic agency. Tai Mendenhall of the University of Minnesota’s Citizen Professional Center described a case study called Family Education Diabetes Series (FEDS) initiative, which embodies the approach which Mangcu and Markham urged. FEDS, a supplement to standard care on diabetes for members of the American Indian community in the Twin Cities, was created through collaborative work between health scientists and providers and the Indian community throughout the initiative, 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. Well-documented health benefits have been found to come from the community-owned and community driven nature of the initiative.

In sum, civic science is democratizing science, as Fred Kronz, director of Science and Technology Studies at NSF colleagues put it on a policy panel moderated by Abbott. The panel also included Ann Bartuska, Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics at USDA and Markham of Gates.

As workshop organizers gathered on Saturday morning, October 4, to review the outcomes, a news story from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) underscored the challenges: “Battle Between NSF and House Science Committee Escalates.” The story details an unprecedented review of personal files by the House committee investigators. “The visits from the staffers, who work for the U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees NSF, were an unprecedented—and some say bizarre—intrusion into the much admired process that NSF has used for more than 60 years to award research grants.”

The AAAS news story illustrated the demonizing of scientists widespread today, and also the potential of civic science to provide a different, constructive lens. Because so many controversies –from evolution and climate science to educational reform and higher education’s role in job creation– are infused with caricatures of scientists and also illustrate the need for scientists and their partners to deepen their democratic capacities, civic science could help move many science-related endeavors from defensive posture to efforts with broadly majoritarian and cross-partisan support.

My conversations last week in DC with two prominent conservative intellectuals, surprised that scientists would participate in a workshop on the topic and that NSF would fund it, also intimated such potential.

The group Saturday discussed the idea of a cross-partisan civic science organization, incorporating empowering and capacity building civic practices into science and society. We developed ideas for an initial leadership group for the next stage of civic science and its first meeting, and sketched possible ideas for a civic science organization in partnership with sympathetic groups and institutions.