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When we think about the grand challenges facing society today—the need for sustainable agriculture, the achievement gap in education, the need to create a healthy society, and climate change—there is a growing sense that business-as-usual isn’t working. Nevertheless, cutting-edge science provides hope—the pace of discovery is rapid; innovative solutions have either emerged or are just on the horizon.

Although these scientific advances are exciting, our initiatives have revealed key barriers to system-wide change.

  • There are fundamental challenges of complexity and scale. With each example, it is hard to understand the root causes of ‘wicked’ problems locally because there are many interconnected elements that interact in complex ways. Similarly, it is hard to bring innovative ideas to scale to create system-wide change because the local details often shift from place to place.
  • There are also structural barriers, including how organizations function. Within each case study area, we see that organizations are often set up in silos to target specific pieces of the larger puzzle. Moreover, such organizations compete for limited resources. In such a system, there are few incentives for cooperation, and few possibilities for system-wide coordination. Our case studies highlight different efforts to overcome these structural barriers, for instance, by creating new ‘boundary’ organizations that target system integration.
  • System coordination is often attempted at the level of government organizations, but here there is a striking lack of political will to implement solutions. Across the scientific domains we highlight, federal funding has been in decline as our nation struggles through a period of bitterly polarized partisan politics. Our initiatives emphasize the need to come together across partisan divides, and the need for all of us—citizen scientists and lay citizens—to develop new democratic skills, habits, and dispositions.
  • Finally, we do not share one of the predominant ways of thinking about how citizens and communities interface with science. In one common view, citizens and communities are perceived as clients, patients, or consumers who select from a menu of solutions provided by scientific experts that are often packaged as fixed and scripted “evidence-based programs.” Given the complexity of modern science, the complexities of context, and the normative as well as technical nature of the challenges we face, such programs often fail.  They can rob people of opportunities to function as civic agents who name and frame their own problems and solutions. And they can reinforce a sense of powerlessness and a culture of grievance and entitlement. Such political and cultural attitudes are devastating, because evidence shows that change is most effective when it happens from within communities (Ostrom, 1994; Boyte, 2011). Our initiatives highlight how the framework of civic science is changing the interface between science and society, between scientists and lay citizens. For instance, multiple case studies point toward the need to create “free spaces” (Evans and Boyte 1992) where diverse groups can come together on an equal footing to develop productive relationships across differences, to develop democratic habits, and to create sustained cultures of learning and innovation.