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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:
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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