What is Civic Science?

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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.