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Citizen Science, Citizen Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When you think of citizen science, what do you think of? I know in my case, I think of people out (maybe with their kids) measuring snowfall, finding birds, or listening at night to hear different kind of insects in various environments.

And yes, that is all definitely citizen science. But citizen science can be, and should be, much more than that. After all, not everyone knows a lot about science, but everyone pays taxes, and those tax dollars go to fund much of the science performed in the US. And perhaps more importantly, the results of scientific innovation are around us every day, in the phones and computers we use, the food we eat, the medicines we take, the cars we drive and the houses we build, and the software involved in allowing you to read this post.

But if citizens are going to live with the benefits or potential consequences of science (as the vast majority of them will), it’s incredibly important to make sure that they are not only well informed about changes and advances in science and technology, but that they also, once informed on a topic, are able to communicate their own feelings about it, and influence the science policy decisions that could impact their lives.

That, Darlene Cavalier of Science Cheerleader* tells me, is the biggest long-term goal of her citizen science projects: to get people who are not already official scientists aware and commenting in an informed way to influence science policy and technology assessment.

“This “participatory technology assessment” has been talked about for years” Darlene said. “We felt it was time to develop an open model here in the U.S., drawing upon 15+ years of experience in other nations (namely the Danish Board of Technology). Those models often include: 1) carefully orchestrated, public deliberations focused on a particular policy matter; 2) evaluations of the methodologies used to both inform the citizen participants and extract their opinions; and, 3) dissemination of the outcomes to policy makers and other stakeholders. These activities require different skill sets and resources. It’s no surprise that the agency established, in part, to incorporate citizen input to complement expert analysis (the now defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment) was unable or unwilling to cultivate a culture of citizen engagement. It’s not easy!”

She’s right. The Office of Technology Assessment that Darlene mentioned was defunded in 1995, and while President Obama has attempted to promote citizen participation in science policy, forward movement has been slow. “There [are] always discussions about the need for “public engagement” in science and technology but we have not moved very far beyond the rhetoric” says David Rejeski, the Director of the Science & Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. ” The largest challenge we face is how to scale public engagement processes to national or international levels. The second challenge is how to position these exercises in front of public policy decisions.”

But technology isn’t waiting. And to that end, The Science Cheerleaders recently teamed up with the Museum of Science, Boston, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes of Arizona State University, the Loka Institute, and the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to form ECAST: Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology. Together, these organizations know how to get citizen participation, they know about technology assessment, and they know how to get results to those who work in policy.

And now, the ECAST group has finished their first large-scale pilot project. To provide citizen input to the Eleventh Council of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, ECAST helped to coordinate the U.S. portion of a global citizen consultation. In conjunction with 34 other sites in 25 countries, the group took in applications and accepted 85 citizens from the D.C. area (there were three other sites in the US as well, including Boston, Denver and Phoenix) to be part of an all day education and policy initiative. Recruitment was not easy.

For the World Wide Views on Biodiversity event, we have been striving to keep the demographic representation at the deliberation similar to that of the area. The Washington, D.C. area, including Maryland and Virginia, is incredibly diverse. As you can imagine, there is a large number of highly educated and affluent people within and around the nation’s capital. This group is probably more likely to have the inclination and ability to attend an event discussing policy and long-term issues. Members of this contingent were not difficult to reach using academic networks, listservs, and Craigslist. And, of course, many early potential participants were from urban areas.

A few demographic criteria proved more difficult to represent: those living in rural areas, those with low household income, and those with less formal education. If we focus in on the people with low household income and less formal education, we start to see why it might be difficult to engage groups with these criteria. Many do not have consistent telephone numbers and/or addresses. Some share their telephones with their friends and family. The Internet is only used maybe once per week by some at local agencies serving the poor.

(Source)

ECAST needed to represent all of the demographics in the greater Washington, D.C. area, a challenge for all the sites both in the US and abroad. It’s important to have representatives from every walk of life, and not to have the panel dominated by white, middle-class men. That meant recruitment from Craigslist to food kitchens, and a final panel that spanned homeless to upper-class (though higher education was still over-represented).

Once they had the panel, they had them participate in a day-long session.


(From the ECAST final report)

Prior to the policy session, all the participants received a short booklet on biodiversity and the policy issues they would be discussion. Throughout the day-long session all the panelists were educated further on issues of biodiversity. On deliberation day, after a reminder series of videos, they were asked what individuals could do to develop a biodiversity strategy, and asked their opinion on several issues of biodiversity. The participants were grouped in smaller groups of 5-8, and each group submitted a recommendation. They were also asked how they felt about various biodiversity issues. But, as Richard Worthinton, Professor of Politics at Pomona College and heavily involved int he project, notes, this is not a test. “we are not judging the citizens’ knowledge in this exercise. Instead, we are providing information and the opportunity to discuss it so that citizens can express their views with the benefit of relevant information and a considered discussion.”

And after the day-long session, the panelists were eager to express their views. A large majority of the participants said they were concerned about global warming and greenhouse gas emissions (91% in the US), a large majority also showed concern about the loss of biodiversity (84% in the US), and supported marine protected areas in international waters (93% in the US). The ECAST participants note that it’s probably a biased sample. People did volunteer, after all, and so the sample will be biased toward people who are both concerned about these issues and promoting government action. This is something that ECAST hopes to address as it goes along.

And of course, this is biodiversity, not technology assessment. Hopefully further trials will address different technologies as well as issues like biodiversity. Some changes to the program have already been made, to allow the panels to be more effective in their functions and to produce recommendations that might be integrated into public policy decisions.

But of course, in order to influence policy, the results need to make it to policy makers. To that end, ECAST issued a report, both as input to the UN Convention, for direct policy application, and one presented at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. They hope to target the report to members of Congress beginning this year.

While ECAST is still in its very beginning, the potential for a project like this is enormous. Not only will it encourage citizen participation in science and technology assessment (and I’m sure it will grow very soon), it will also help those citizens understand what they are assessing and why. I hope that there are pre- and post-assessments in the future to see how the panels may have improved in their understanding of scientific policy issues. While the point is not to educate the public, it certainly seems like a good side effect! And with any luck, the citizen panels will be able to make recommendations on many of the science policies that are important in the present and will become even more so in the future.

For more information, make sure to check out the ECAST website, as well as the results of the project at World Wide Views on Biodiversity. And let’s hope to hear more about citizen science, and citizen policy, very soon!

*Yes, that Science Cheerleader. If you follow the blogsphere you will know that Darlene and I have had our differences, but I have always thought that her citizen science work is unparalleled, and I am particularly impressed with this initiative. I think it’s incredibly important for the future of science in this country, which is why I’ve decided to highlight it today.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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