Civic Science — Renewing the link between science and democracy

Huffington Post Blog by Harry C. Boyte on October 08, 2014

Science is not value neutral. It depends on democratic values of cooperation, free inquiry, and a commonwealth of knowledge. Before World War II, a broad group of “scientific democrats” including John Dewey and thousands of other scientists, described in Andrew Jarrett’s recent book, Science, Democracy, and the American University, helped to lead the movement for deepening democracy in America.

It is crucial to renew the explicit ties between democracy and science, declared Gerald Taylor, one of the nation’s leading community organizers, on October 2, to a diverse audience at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Otherwise science can become a tool of oppression in extreme cases. The Nazis, after all, conducted first class scientific experiments – on human beings. So did the U.S. government, in the infamous Tuskegee experiment. Between 1932 and 1972 the U.S. Public Health Service intentionally infected a group of rural African American men with syphilis, who thought they were receiving free health care, to study the disease’s untreated progression.

Taylor spoke at a workshop on civic science at the National Science Foundation, October 2-3. The meeting brought together a diverse group of scientists, community organizers, political theorists, social scientists, humanities scholars, graduate students, leaders in cooperative extension, humanity centers 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. For two days the group discussed the relevance of science to the complex problems of our time and the future of democracy.

As workshop organizers gathered on Saturday morning, October 4, to review the meeting, a news story from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science underscored the interests of scientists themselves in strengthening the link between science and democracy. “Battle Between NSF and House Science Committee Escalates.” The story details an unprecedented review of 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 workshop was supported by an NSF grant, with additional support from the University of Iowa, Augsburg College, Imagining America, and Syracuse Universities. I was part of the organizing team, along with Taylor, John Spencer, Sherburne Abbott, Nick Jordan, Gwen Ottinger, and Scott Peters.

Collective challenges emphasized in the framing White Paper include climate change, education, health and agriculture. They also include polarization; widespread feelings of powerlessness; declining trust in public institutions; and forces which threaten free inquiry and access to public knowledge – generating a crisis of democracy itself around the world. Democracy’s advance can no longer be taken for granted. The initiative includes a new website, http://civic-science.org/ .

Civic science is an approach to scientific inquiry which revitalizes the democratic purposes and practices of science. Civic science aims to make substantial progress on science-related controversies through bringing civic skills into science, and it aims to build participatory democracy in science and society. In civic science, scientific knowledge is a vital public resource “on tap not on top” in public problem solving. Peter Levine, a prominent political philosopher at Tufts University, argued in his blogthat such civic science grows from the intersection of democracy, science, and civic life.

The premise of civic science is that scientists active in public problem solving need ground-level skills and habits of relational public work and strategic thinking if scientific discoveries are to live constructively in the world. Janie Hipp, who directs an indigenous food initiative among Indian tribes based at the University of Arkansas, pointed out that such skills are also needed everywhere.

John Spencer, founding director of the Delta Center at the University of Iowa, described breakthroughs in scientific research on early childhood development and learning, especially the concept of “executive function” which allows children to adapt to new and changing situations. For such science to be integrated into a national movement with sufficient public will to transform early education will mean scientists learning democratic skills such as understanding local contexts and collaborating with a wide range 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. She and other leaders are moving Extension away from the “expert knows best,” information transfer approach dominant in recent years.

Xolela Mangcu, a leading public intellectual in South Africa in the Black Consciousness Tradition who has detailed “technocratic creep” in South African society — the spread of purportedly neutral, expert-knows-best approaches that disempower lay citizens- observed that western interventions on medical problems such as HIV AIDS can make matters worse if they ignore local community cultures and capacities.

Tai Mendenhall of the University of Minnesota’s Citizen Professional Center described a case study called Family Education Diabetes Series (FEDS) initiative, which answers Mangcu’s challenge. 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 the Indian community over ten years. It has been based on relationships and mutual respect and trust, and the program’s design, educational foci and format, visibility, implementation, and ongoing modifications have all been undertaken democratically. Well-documented health benefits have been found to come from the community-owned and community driven nature of the initiative.

Civic science is democratizing science, as Fred Kronz, director of Science and Technology Studies at NSF put it on a policy panel. The panel also included Ann Bartuska, Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics at USDAand Paul Markham of the Gates Foundation. Bartuska described examples of civic science associated with USDA. Markham agreed with Mangcu that there is pressing need for foundations to bring in an empowering civic agency approach, around the world.

As the House raid on the NSF showed, many controversies – from evolution and climate science to educational reform and higher education’s role in job creation – are based on caricatures of scientists. And as I described in a recent blog on “Disruption,” the promotion film for the People’s Climate March, scientists and their partners need to deepen their democratic skills and strategic approaches if they are to win support from the broad middle of America for their issues. The People’s Climate March itself, much more inclusive in message than the film, suggests the possibilities.

Many scientists today are in a defensive or protest stance, finding it difficult to gain cross-partisan, broad support.

Civic science — democratizing science — holds potential to be a game changer.

Harry Boyte is editor of the forthcoming Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press), which includes several essays related to civic science.