Civic Science -- Beyond the Knowledge Wars

This post was co-written with John P. Spencer

Today, we face multiplying global crises -- from economic collapse to global warming to crises in education and healthcare. As these multiply, ideological conflict intensifies. Congress is dysfunctional. Much of the media has become a shout-fest. Stress clearly is not bringing out the best in people.

At the center of our ideological battles is a knowledge war that presents a fierce obstacle to public problem-solving. While progressives are rightly alarmed by one side of this war -- the growing tide of anti-science sentiment -- the narrow perspective of some on the "pro-science" side also hinders progress.

In recent decades, a detached and technocratic approach, what might be called the cult of the expert, has championed the authority of "objective" scientific and disciplinary knowledge. In this view, elite experts bring solutions to the masses who are viewed as ignorant, passive, and needy. If the masses fail to listen, the remedy is to turn up the volume.

Climate science often illustrates this pattern. A January 2012 editorial in Nature, one of the top scientific outlets, called for scientists to get into the fray. "Where political leadership on climate change is lacking, scientists must be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet." Noting that emission of greenhouse gases has continued to rise and denialists and climate change contrarians are multiplying, Nature proposes that "climate scientists must be even more energetic in taking their message to citizens."

Such sentiments are well-intentioned and the cause is urgent. But this perspective illustrates a dramatically limited concept of what "climate politics" involves.

The Nature editorialists equate politics with "messaging," an equation which is widespread in the academic world. But the challenges we face in the real world are well beyond the capacities of science to provide crisp solutions delivered via a one-way transmission of information. The cult of the expert cannot ultimately prescribe effective solutions. Reality demands a different framework.

This new framework is not to be found in the tide of anti-science, an anti-intellectual stance of victimhood and grievance which appeals to "common-sense values" and personal experience. This animates many of today's candidates on the conservative side, from Sarah Palin to Rick Santorum. Just as the cult of the expert falls short in solving real-world problems, so too does openly denying scientific evidence.

Civic science offers a new path forward

Civic science is a signature approach of the American Commonwealth Partnership, a new coalition of colleges, universities, schools, and civic leaders launched at the White House on January 10th. The American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) is dedicated to building democracy's colleges for the 21st century, centers of learning and knowledge that are deeply grounded in the life of communities and committed to educating efficacious citizens. More broadly, ACP promotes the founding American ideal that "we the people," the broad citizenry, are the heart of a thriving democracy

Civic science builds on a rich history of efforts to translate scientific findings to real world settings, full of complexity, ambiguity, and open-endedness, where science cannot be "applied" in any linear or straightforward way. But it frames these efforts with a new premise: science is political -- and it should be.

In these terms, "politics" is the interaction, negotiation, and integration of different interests and vantages to solve common problems and to create a shared way of life.

Civic science sees science as a resource for action in the world, more than simply a description of the world. It is a key tool of human empowerment. In this context, there is no clean divide between 'basic' and 'applied' sciences; rather, all forms of science -- and all types of scientists -- have the potential to directly contribute to discussions about the state of knowledge and how humans interact with one another and with the world around us. Indeed, to use science effectively to solve real-world challenges and create a shared way of life requires that we all develop the political capacities for work together, across partisan and other divides.

Case in point: this summer the Delta Center, working with the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa and in concert with community and educational partners and the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, is launching a new civic science initiative called "Get Ready Iowa." Get Ready Iowa aims to foster the school readiness of three- and four-year-olds statewide. This initiative is motivated by scientific evidence that early investments in education can have a profound "return on investment" later in life.

Science tells us that school readiness should be an important goal. But we also need to recognize that science alone is not the answer. Why? Because enhancing the social and cognitive skills of a young child literally 'takes a village.' Parents matter. Teachers matter. Administrators matter. Policy makers matter. Communities matter. Scientists matter. Many kinds of knowledge need to be integrated to foster "school readiness," including local knowledge about what works in specific places, the wisdom of cultural communities, the knowledge of families passed down over time, the craft of facilitating learning -- as well as recent advances in developmental science.

To achieve collaboration among such diverse interests requires establishing relationships, bringing people together on an equal footing, and empowering each agent to bring his or her unique skills to the table to make change happen. And that's precisely what 'politics' is all about -- harnessing human agency to create change in the world.

Civic science is a politics that can work in many fields when people to come together around a shared vision and common work, moving beyond a top-down, expert approach on one hand and science denialism on the other. In the democracy efforts in and around Northern Arizona University highlighted in an earlier column (Harry C. Boyte and Blase Scarnati, "Building Democracy Colleges -- A Different Kind of Politics," May 3), environmental and climate scientists and their students are using this approach with a diverse mix of people, from tribal leaders to Tea Party sympathizers, with sometimes striking success.

For instance, an interdisciplinary seminar called WACBAT (Weatherization and Community Building Action Team) is organized around working groups in weatherization and retrofits, community organizing, and the Wind for Schools Program. WACBAT builds community relationships and power for sustainability broadly understood, seeking to advance a green collar economy around energy efficiency and renewable energy. Combining interdisciplinary study on these issues with door-to-door outreach and sign-ups generated many hundreds of thousands of dollars of energy efficiency retrofits in low income neighborhoods in Flagstaff, and produced statewide organizing that led the Arizona Corporation Commission to establish a $2.7 million revolving loan fund for energy efficiency retrofits.

More intangibly, civic science is generating hope. "Each student is increasingly passionate about the public work they are involved in and the immense transformations they have undergone," says Sierra Jones, an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University. Jones will present stories of their work to all incoming freshman students during orientation this fall.

Students like Sierra Jones are realizing that knowledge can have a powerful impact in concert with human agency, collective will, and partnering across differences. The goal of this new politics of knowledge is not to speak to the media or to politicians with a louder microphone. The goal is for scientists to act with citizens -- as citizens -- to change the world.

Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership. John P. Spencer is the Director of the Delta Center, a Professor of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa, and a National Council member of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

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