Civic science 

Civic science describes the efforts by scientists to connect with the public to communicate scientific results and to improve scientific literacy

It is a response to a problem of implication that has always been present but became acute through the 1990’s. The problem is in the assumption often held by both scientists and policy makers that many complex political and social issues are best resolved with technical expertise than with democratic deliberation. 

If it’s tricky then leave it to the experts.

Now if I were to say “let’s not worry about air traffic control, we’ll leave it to the experts”. You would not even notice what I had said and boarded the plane.

But if I were to say “let’s have a good democratic debate about how to schedule this afternoon’s aircraft movements, make sure everyone gets a fair hearing, and take a vote on it”. You would think I was mad and think twice before flying. 

Most of the time we are quite comfortable leaving the tricky stuff to the experts in everything from hospitals, banks, skyscraper construction and Hadron collider laboratories. A few moments thought and it’s clear we defer to ‘the experts’ all the time.

But somewhere along the way, scientists or the scientific process lost connection with people. It became less clear to the layman what the science experts actually did and what value there was in the information they provided.

This was especially important when science knowledge was used in complex or controversial policy decisions.

Citizen science

Citizen science is another thing altogether. This is where science is developed and/or undertaken by people who are not formally trained as scientists.

Citizen or participatory science would involve deliberation by those people with a stake in the outcome, irrespective of their level of scientific expertise on how to 

  1. apply the science or technology to a problem 
  2. formulate the scientific problem 

This is mirror of the civic science problem because the science community has grave doubts that, even with training, it is possible for the layman to understand enough science to make his contribution worthwhile.

Leave it to the experts because they want you to leave it to them.

So when a problem like BSE disease comes along with claims of links to autism and the science communication flops despite no evidence for a link, confusion ensues. Likewise for the effects of genetically modified crops — considered within acceptable limits in the US but still questioned in Europe and Australia. 

Tension builds between science and the community. 

farmers listening to scientific explanations for why timed grazing produces more efficient livestock production, NSW Australia

3 reasons why civic science is needed

1) to restore public trust in science

Trust is always hard won and easily lost. In the UK it only took one contentious issue, BSE, to dramatically increase skepticism among the public especially of science conducted by government or corporations. Many people no longer trusted the science experts to provide reliable information in their top-down fashion. 

They didn’t believe the traffic controller would route the planes safely.

2) to contend with the complexity of environmental challenges

Scientific knowledge of global environmental issues is quite limited. It is not easy to extrapolate from local to global knowledge mainly because the most powerful tool science has, the controlled experiment, can’t be used on a planet without replicates.

When scale and complexity increase science succumbs to uncertainty and policy decisions become more about values than evidence. 

There are too many planes landing and taking off even for the experienced traffic controller to make safe.

3) the democratization of science 

When participation and deliberation are central to what people expect, then they expect it for any matter that impacts upon them.  So why would this not apply to science when more and more issues are decided on scientific evidence.

natural resource management experts responsible for contributions to science policy gaining field experience of major environmental issues

These reasons are sound enough. They suggest that in some countries science has work to do to rebuild reputation and become more relevant.

Civic science proposes that the way to do this is to 

  • increase public participation in science — perhaps even in citizen science
  • avoid the ‘stupid white men’ syndrome by increasing representation in science at all levels
  • increase public deliberation on science and science information
  • make the governance of science more democratic


Noble objectives and sound logic seeps through civic science.

Most environmental problems cannot be tackled without reliable scientific evidence. It makes sense that this should come from the experts. 

Let the traffic controller schedule the flights.

The problem is that a huge volume of air traffic is arriving from every direction and is overwhelming the controller. He could use some help, even from Norman who might have no more expertise than seeing a Thai Airways airbus pass over their house three minutes ago.

And this is useful help. 

What would not be so helpful is if Norman pitched up at the control tower and started pushing some buttons. 

Unfortunately science can only be designed effectively and done well by scientists. What problems they choose [or are told] to solve should be informed by social concerns and values. So scientists do need to communicate and engage more effectively and science governance would benefit from less politics and more pragmatism.

But this is not an easy ask. Scientists are a reclusive bunch and not known for a catchy turn of phrase or the more formal skills of the communicator.  

Equally Norman may need to understand where his local knowledge is useful and when his button pushing abilities might need restraint.

› civic science

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a mammologist traps marsupials in the outback of Western Australia

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