The Scientist as Civic Partner

Louise Lief, Lief Strategies

A geologist surrounded by lava photographs a new breakout covering a stretch of highway in Hawaii during this year’s Kilauea volcanic eruption. (Credit: U.S. Geological Survey)

At a conference I attended a couple of years ago, a professor presented the results of a survey on what motivates scientists to engage with the public. The top reason scientists gave was to defend science. Building public trust came in last as a community priority.

This struck me as odd. Defending science is a reactive, unfulfilling chore. You never really win. Building public trust looks towards the future, shared purpose, and new projects. These findings suggested a lack of attention to science’s larger civic role.

Today, there are signs this may be changing. An emerging group of scientists is building new research models that treat communities as partners rather than research subjects. Not only do they conduct collaborative research with neighborhood groups, city managers, and business leaders, at times they let community members determine the research topics as well. These scientists practice “community science,” a process by which scientists and communities do science together to advance one or more community priorities. A group of these scientists met recently in Washington at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to discuss their work in environment and health.

“Science by itself has no moral framework. It does wonderful things and awful things . . . Practicing science with communities to advance the public good provides it with a moral compass.”

Raj Pandya is one of them. An atmospheric scientist with a background in physics and civil engineering, he is the founding director of the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) of the American Geophysical Union, a 60,000-member professional association of earth and space scientists. TEX pairs volunteer scientists with communities to work together on issues residents want to tackle. It has conducted over 85 investigations so far on flooding, pollution, and various natural hazards in locales as varied as Boston, Savannah, Knoxville, Houston, East Lansing, and Whitefish, Montana.

TEX believes scientists and communities are natural allies in their search for solutions to shared problems, each bringing something unique and necessary to the table. Its statement on Integrity in Community Science outlines the principles underlying these partnerships: “There are so many other pieces to solving the problem beyond science,” said Pandya in his keynote address. “Science is helpful but never sufficient.”

After wildfires, soil runoff can increase, causing increased flooding that can damage homes and community water supplies. Scientists evaluate risks and measures needed to address threats to health, safety, and property. (Credit: National Park Service)

By working together, says Pandya, both partners can achieve greater impact and even breakthroughs. He cited the role residents of the White Mountain Apache Reservation played in developing Pedialyte, a rehydration solution now routinely prescribed for millions of infants worldwide. A Johns Hopkins University researcher asked tribal members for help designing the research protocols. The partnership has been so fruitful and has led to so many other discoveries that in 1997 UNICEF and the World Health Organization honored the White Mountain Apache Tribe for its contributions to global health.

Pandya spoke of the moral and ethical rationale for community-centered research. “Science by itself has no moral framework.” It does wonderful things and awful things, he continued. It can conserve nature or marginalize it, reduce inequity or increase it. Practicing science with communities to advance the public good, he says, provides it with a moral compass.

A USGS scientist surveys the storm surge from Hurricane Harvey near Port Arkansas, Texas. (Credit: Alec McDonald, U.S. Geological Survey)

But even scientists as enthusiastic as Pandya acknowledge that working with communities is hard and can be a culture shock. Scientists seek understanding. Communities want action and decisions. Scientists focus on credibility and expertise. Communities want to know, ‘will you help me solve my problems?’ Addressing these challenges often requires scientists to reorient research goals and methods to win community buy-in. Pandya outlined five principles for scientists to follow when designing research protocols to take account of community goals:

  • Design from the beginning for impact
  • Invite all expertise
  • Design for justice
  • Design together
  • Listen, respect, connect

Sacoby Wilson, a University of Maryland professor who has conducted community-based research on environmental health and equity issues for over a decade says he focuses on shared goals to gain community support. “What’s a win-win for you and the community partner?” asks Wilson. “Food, faith, family, health, and jobs. I connect to those five things.” Scientists like Wilson benefit because community collaboration not only produces better science, it also connects the discipline to social justice and civic responsibility.

Wilson has helped low-income communities living near hog farms, cement plants, and incinerators measure, quantify, and document the impact of pollutants on their health. His formidable skills include epidemiology and biostatistics, and help empower communities to understand and act on their problems. Working this way, the scientist as civic actor becomes a community’s Most Valuable Player, and constantly playing defense for science is no longer necessary.

Scientist measuring streamflow after flooding near Auburn Georgia. (Credit: Paul Ankcorn, U.S. Geological Survey)

For scientists like Wilson, this also obligates them to protect communities they collaborate with from potential adverse impacts or retribution. When Wilson did a study on the health impacts of North Carolina hog farms on nearby communities, some participating community members were threatened. In other instances, scientists doing flood mapping found residents worried that adverse findings would affect their insurance rates or property values.

To address such concerns, community scientists have tackled privacy issues with more energy and enthusiasm than many large tech companies and even traditional public health researchers, developing new ways to anonymize data and obscure location. They have also focused on the ethics of working with the public, data-sharing agreements, and data interoperability. These techniques all have broader civic applications, from enabling municipalities to more efficiently and equitably target and address a range of needs, to potentially strengthening privacy for search engines, social media and crowdsourcing platforms.

Community science is an expression of the times, enabled by technology and reflecting the emergence of more horizontal, diverse networks of civic actors cooperating to solve shared challenges. All too often, there is a disconnect between the lived experience of ordinary people and scientific inquiry. Here is an instance where they work in concert, each strengthening the other.

To develop this model and help it succeed, public and civic engagement funders and practitioners can more intentionally engage, encourage, and incentivize the scientific community to expand its role as a civic partner. Everyone stands to benefit.


Louise Lief is an independent consultant to philanthropy, non-profits and media, helping mission-driven organizations design, execute and communicate program strategies to achieve their goals with maximum impact. Her areas of expertise include civic participation and community engagement, philanthropy, journalism and media, science, environment, global health, international affairs and development, poverty alleviation, human rights, culture, and religion.

As founding deputy director of the International Reporting Project (formerly the Pew International Journalism Program), public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, and scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of Communication, Louise launched initiatives such as the Science and the Media Project and published in leading publications including the Wilson Quarterly, Aspen Journal of Ideas and Columbia Journalism Review. Previously, she was an award-winning writer and producer for top US news organizations including the New York Times, CBS News ‘60 Minutes,’ and U.S. News and World Report. She is a graduate of Yale University.


This piece is a commentary on the PACE paper: “Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection.” Please see the publication for more commentaries and the original paper — and follow #Infogagement to continue the conversation.