A few years ago, residents of Opelika, Alabama, noticed that something was very wrong with the local waterway. The waters of Saugahatchee Creek, which begins near Opelika and traces a winding route into the Alabama River before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near Mobile, had turned dark and smelled bad. A longtime volunteer from the local water-monitoring group was among the first to alert officials. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management tracked the sludge in the Saugahatchee to breaches in several chemical waste ponds on the grounds of a shuttered textile mill, and it ordered the responsible parties to fix the problem.
The local water-monitoring group that identified the spill is one of more than 1,700 volunteer organizations in the United States engaged in measuring, tracking, and reporting water quality. These groups are composed of trained volunteers who care deeply about their local waterways and work to keep them healthy and clean for drinking, fishing, and recreation. These citizen scientists monitor their local rivers and streams throughout the country, everywhere from eastern Alabama to rural Idaho to upstate New York.
In the wake of our recent presidential election, such geographic diversity is important—and offers a critical lesson. The election is the most recent illustration of trends that have been visible for some time, of America’s stark divisions in, among other things, class, education, ethnicity, geography, and politics. The reaction to the election’s outcome has lent support to the idea that if we are to avoid permanently entrenching these cultural and political differences, we need to listen to and communicate with people who hold very different views and values.
This call has been mostly directed—often self-directed—at the journalists, pundits, urbanites, and other so-called elites who, in hindsight, seemed not to take seriously the perspectives and values of those who felt their voices were not being heard or the nominee they chose to represent them.
But the need to engage with citizens and their concerns could also be applied to another group that often finds distrust directed its way: scientists. Although it varies a bit by discipline, there is a near-complete lack of incentives for scientists to reach out beyond the insular world of academic research. Peer-reviewed journals, scholarly conferences, and inside-the-Beltway professional organizations—not to mention the enormous amounts of work busy professional researchers are expected to take on—frequently serve to keep the public at arm’s length.
This means that scientists and other experts too often fail to challenge their own assumptions or engage meaningfully with people who are not scientists or experts. It’s very easy for scientists to focus on their esoteric work, building their careers, consulting with colleagues, and engaging their passions while taking for granted that the public will have confidence in their conclusions and recommendations.
This insularity is bad for science and bad for society. Just as the recent election results shocked professional prognosticators, scientists are often baffled and dismayed when people dispute or ignore their expertise on important topics, such as climate change, genetically modified crops, and nuclear power. Science says something is true and most scientists agree! How could you think otherwise? But by framing issues that have profound impacts on citizens as purely technical questions that don’t require public input, scientists and other experts risk losing the trust of citizens on whom they depend for funding and support.
This very trust is already declining. Scientists now have the opportunity and the responsibility to strengthen public engagement in their work. For a scientific establishment that is wary of the incoming administration for a variety of reasons, the political and policy uncertainties ushered in by November’s election should be a wake-up call. Science and technology organizations, along with scientists and other technocrats, need to work to make scientific and technological advances more inclusive and more responsive to the needs and concerns of the broader public.
This gets us back to the citizen water-monitoring groups like the one in Opelika. Alabama Water Watch and hundreds of other citizen science organizations have been engaging ordinary people on scientific issues important to them and their community, such as clean water, biodiversity, and healthy air. But citizen science is not limited to environmental concerns: Improving public transportation, advancing brain research, and innovating space propulsion systems are just a few citizen-led research activities that are increasing the pace of discovery in a variety of fields.
These organizations can and do operate in rural or marginalized places where the effects of scientific and technological change have been decidedly mixed. Manufacturing, mining, and farming jobs have been lost to automation and outsourcing. Future innovations may have even more disruptive effects, as, for example, self-driving vehicles take over from human truck drivers and low-skill service jobs disappear entirely.
People in areas with few and decreasing opportunities feel left behind and their concerns ignored—because they have been. Their political choices reflect this sentiment. But scientists are in a unique position to hear from these citizens and incorporate their important perspectives into research programs and scientific policy. Why? Well, despite an overall erosion of trust in public institutions, most people hold favorable views of science and its role in society. When scientists say they are working with the public, people are inclined—at the moment—to believe them. The difficulty is that scientists will actually have to do it.
Luckily, scientists and other experts are now equipped with ways to meaningfully engage with everyday people, citizen science being an important one. Distributed throughout the country without regard to politics, economics, or other divisive categories, citizen science groups and projects can help close the gap between professional scientists and the public. Citizen science can bring political diversity to scientific culture and produce open knowledge that is useful to public and private research interests. And when public engagement goes beyond data collection—as vital as that is for science and education—citizens can add their voices as input to decisions about issues that can affect their lives.
Another method for bringing public perspectives into science and technology policy that’s emerged in recent years is through democratic deliberation. This method can take many forms, but one that we have been working on is called participatory technology assessment. In essence, it involves informing diverse groups of citizens about an issue, having them discuss it, and then sharing their perspectives with one another and with decision-makers. Democratic deliberations have brought informed public opinion to bear on complex questions, including recommendations for medical rationing, how to site nuclear waste facilities, and community climate resilience planning.
Engaging citizens where they live on the issues they care about informs and empowers both the public and scientists. Informs and empowers can be wishy-washy, feel-good terms, but in this case they’re accurate. The citizens who attend deliberative forums learn a great deal about the topics under consideration, not only from the information provided but also from the knowledge and values expressed by their peers. They learn about and discuss technical details along with the trade-offs, controversies, and uncertainties that are inherent in any difficult issue. Otherwise, their input wouldn’t be as useful.
And when decision-makers receive perspectives from citizens, it means that their views, which might otherwise be overlooked or ignored by experts, can shape how these issues are framed and how policy choices are made. This does not mean, of course, that everyone will be happy with every decision or that policies will necessarily reflect the public’s values. But deliberative democracy does provide citizens with a way to introduce their diverse perspectives into an otherwise frustratingly opaque process.
The federal government and the incoming administration can support these tools and methods for citizen engagement. Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency have been advised to incorporate citizen science into their activitie, and in a development that surprised many observers, Congress just passed bipartisan legislation that authorizes the government to use crowdsourcing and citizen science in federally funded research. But scientists themselves can and should take the lead on involving the public in their work. Richer public engagement in a variety of research disciplines can help us develop shared solutions to the challenges presented by scientific, technological, and political change. By using citizen science and the tools of deliberative democracy, we can strengthen the scientific enterprise—and our democracy—as it enters a period of considerable uncertainty.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.