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Practicing Civic Science: Notes From the Field

By Joel A. Snow

On numerous occasions in recent months, NSF Director Neal Lane has suggested that the science community has a "new need to share with the American public the value and promise of science and technology." Indeed, he has suggested that "it may be time to expand the professional responsibilities of science to include informing fellow citizens about science." This mission of carrying science to the citizenry has been called a "civic role for scientists," or "civic science."

Unlike public science, which is aimed at advocacy of public policy related to science and technology, the objective of civic science is to inform citizens of how science functions and contributes to our society, and therefore why it merits the public's interest and support. It is a broader issue than building a constituency for science, but includes appreciation of the appropriate uses of science. It's not that the public lacks interest, but rather that knowledge and understanding of science are unfortunately not widespread.

Despite the reality that science has enabled an unprecedented transformation of human society, many of the daily activities of most people are similar to those of earlier generations, though with different tools. The transforming technologies that make our society different (from instant electronic communications to highly productive, disease resistant seed corn) are seldom obvious in their relevance to everyday life. Little wonder that what takes place in the research laboratory now may seem hopelessly arcane and irrelevant. The pace of change has been so rapid that it is hardly surprising that formal education has not kept up. The public, clearly, must learn outside the classroom.

Improving the science and science-awareness content of general education has long-run benefits for the unknown and unanticipated vocations of the 21st century. But education, and public education in particular, seems to resist revolution and is entwined with so many other aspects of society (including financing) that improving its pertinence and performance will be a long, tough struggle. Civic science, on the other hand, is for today. The challenge is to discover how to communicate with today's working, reading, viewing and voting public on the basis of the tools and experience that they have on tap on their home ground. They will not be interested in laboratories or lectures, but rather in finding out about things that affect their jobs, businesses, health and daily lives.

On the basis of some 30 years of field experience as a civic scientist, let me offer a few observations or guidelines:

  1. Doing civic science is not for everybody. It is a calling where there needs to be a rapport between you and your audience. You need to speak their language.
  2. What you have to say is not for everybody. Interesting Joe and Jane Farmer in cosmology may just be too hard a sell, although why the night sky isn't bright might work. Most people are willing to have faith that scientists know what they are doing.
  3. Keep it simple. We who are addicted to precision in terminology and expression, along with the ifs and buts and caveats of a detailed argument, can quickly lose our audience in a welter of detail. But a simple ice cube analogy can show why warming that melts the west Antarctic ice cap would cause global flooding.
  4. Avoid "talking down." The audiences may be literate, though not literate in science.
  5. Be clear on what your message is and what connection hooks it to some matter of general public interest with which people identify.
  6. Credibility is precious, so be sure your facts are really facts, that your interpretations of the importance of the work you are discussing is not overblown, and that your conclusions or opinions are not unduly self-serving. This is particularly the case in communicating with politicians where invidious remarks about subspecialities other than your own seldom result in overall benefit.
  7. An out-and-out sales pitch for science funding is seldom appropriate. The funding issue is always there in the background, but public investments are made for many public purposes and haves many different rationales. Civic occasions are usually ill-suited to complaining about money - particularly if the complainer's personal income is well above the local median income. Making a pitch to a politician is a legitimate personal advocacy, but be careful about seeming to represent your institution if that's not your job.
  8. The mundane may be more interesting than the profound. The discovery of quantum mechanics may be less compelling to a general audience than the tale of the invention of Velcro or the Post-It Note, which also illustrate the scientific method, serendipity, and how chance favors the prepared mind.
  9. Seek out opportunities. Probably no one will come beating on your door asking you to speak, but opportunities are everywhere if you pursue them.
  10. Communicating about science with the general public is hard work. It takes time and talent to do it well. Moreover, the rewards are largely psychic - it's a paying profession for only a few. But you might be surprised at how open the public in your community may be to hear about what you know, what you do, and why you do it. For them it's a new and different world.
  11. Finally, remember to lighten up. Science is fun, after all, and sometimes can be funny. Public radio in many locations carries a parody called "Dr. Science" that spoofs the smug, all- knowing scientist who pontificates on practically everything. A year or so ago, a film called "I.Q." featured Walter Matthau as a slightly batty Einstein with equally batty Institute for Advanced Study buddies. This summer's movie fare included "Phenomenon," "The Nutty Professor," and "Twister," about chasing tornadoes for scientific purposes. These films are full of stereotypes involving science and light humor, to be sure, but also reflect perceptions in popular culture that include a certain odd respect with which science is viewed, and some frustration at how hard it can be to understand.

Joel A. Snow is director of the Institute for Physical Research and Technology at Iowa State University. A longer version of this article appeared in the Summer 1996 newsletter of the APS Forum on Education.


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