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Scientific Societies and Civic Science: Current Landscape and the Future

Rose Hendricks is a Kavli Civic Science Fellow and vice-chair of the leadership team for ComSciCon, who is leading a collaboration of scientific societies in expanding their support for scientists who engage with decision makers, communities, and members of the public. She is a social scientist (PhD in cognitive science) with experience as a communications researcher for nonprofit organizations and a science communication trainer. The Civic Science Fellows program provides opportunities for leaders with diverse backgrounds and experiences to work at strategic science-society intersections. Rose is developing a framework for collaboration to better support scientists who engage with decision makers, communities, and members of the public. This landscape analysis was undertaken at the outset of this initiative to inform the group’s goals and collective actions.

Scientific societies, associations, and professional organizations are often thought of as linchpins of the scientific enterprise. Their conferences and journals are widely recognized as vehicles for scientific progress and the exchange of ideas. Because societies are so integral to the fields they represent, they also have unique opportunities to foster a culture of “civic science”—defined as broad public engagement with issues that arise at the many intersections of science and society. As these organizations’ missions involve advancing science for the betterment of the broader society, many of them already work to support scientists who engage with diverse audiences, including members of the public and decision makers. In 2019, the American Society for Cell Biology, Research!America, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science led staff from over 30 societies in launching an initiative to increase their collective impact at the intersections between science and society.

We wanted to be sure that this new initiative began with an understanding of how societies currently support scientists’ civic science efforts. What kinds of programs and other forms of support do societies already offer? What challenges do societies face in supporting civic science, and what seems to work best? The Scientific Society Civic Science Landscape Report used interviews with society staff and information that is publicly available online to characterize scientific societies’ current practices in order to identify opportunities to collaborate for greater impact.

I asked a number of staff members at different societies who have helped shape this work to share their thoughts about the landscape report. Here are some of their thoughts:

What were some of the interesting findings in the landscape report?

I’ve noticed (but haven’t documented) an increased interest in civic science in my discipline in recent years. It was interesting and encouraging to hear that others perceived a similar shift.Amanda Grigg, American Political Science Association

I found a few observations, when combined by this landscape report, interesting to note, which was that when societies survey their members, they observe scientists value their advocacy efforts. However, the number of members who engage with advocacy programs is fairly low, which may be because scientists are satisfied with advocacy done on their behalf by the societies, or because the degree to which they value that advocacy is somewhat limited compared to other opportunities science societies provide. – Caitlin Grzeskowiak, Research!America

How does the landscape work help us going forward?

The report identifies common programs*—areas where we can compare challenges, best practices, and outcomes—and gaps in programming—areas where we can work together to expand programming. It’s a vital first step if associations want to conduct effective and efficient civic science programming. – Amanda Grigg, American Political Science Association

Seeing the various activities laid out in detail helps us understand the efficacy of various approaches. Being able to see what works well (or not so well) for others can help us identify new activities and tailor existing programs to be more effective. I was interested in the observation that groups come together to engage in advocacy more systematically than they do for other civic science efforts. I think this is an opportunity to see if we can bring that level of cooperation to other aspects of civic science by looking at where our goals align. Another opportunity that was highlighted in the report was the limited number of awards that are offered for civic science activities. It seems like this is a pretty low-hanging fruit that could easily be added to society award programs. – Anonymous

*Find detailed information about common programs in the report starting on page 6.

What questions did the landscape report spark for you, and what do we still need to learn?

The biggest question it highlighted for me was one of measurement—how can we determine whether civic science programs are effective? This will likely require quantitative and qualitative measurements, and careful consideration of what outcomes we expect (and what is possible). I also have some specific questions about the value of resources/toolkits—are people using them? Are they successful? Are they enough to promote engagement, or do we need more intensive facilitation to encourage this kind of work? Another big question—how do people with different identities and forms of privilege engage in civic science differently? What challenges might different researchers face and how can we support them in engaging safely, productively, and ethically? – Amanda Grigg, American Political Science Association

I think we still have a lot to learn on best practices for sustainability of scientists’ engagement. Science societies have created lower barrier opportunities to get involved, like Capitol Hill Days, but in order to provide scientists with resources to engage long term in civic science, a fundamental shift in perspective of civic science must take place throughout all research disciplines. This is a huge challenge, but reports like this provide renewed awareness. – Caitlin Grzeskowiak, Research!America

The landscape report is the first step in a long-term initiative for scientific societies to support positive relationships between science and the broader society. Next, the group has identified concrete projects that will help us move toward specific goals:

  1. Signaling the value of civic science to scientists, academic institutions, society leadership, and/or funding bodies
  2. Encouraging and facilitating information-sharing regarding best practices and other civic science–relevant lessons learned across organizations

  3. Coordinating resources to scale up societies’ most effective programs supporting civic science

  4. Supporting more robust scientist engagement in grassroots and local advocacy

  5. Supporting more mutually beneficial public participation in science

Let's continue to engage on this topic and share ideas. To learn more, please contact me, Rose Hendricks, Kavli Civic Science Fellow:

Posted by Rose Hendricks