LSC Postdoctoral Researcher focuses on civic science to shape the future of science communication

“The promise and perils of gene-editing might be the most important public debate we haven’t been having widely enough.” This response from Bill Gates to an article on synthetic biology highlights a growing dilemma faced by emerging technologies. Such developments are making their way into society before researchers have the chance to analyze and engage the public in discussions about their implications.

In a perspective piece in the Spring 2018 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Elizabeth Good Christopherson, Dietram Scheufele and Brooke Smith propose fostering a culture of civic science as an approach to more effectively address many of society’s challenges.

Philanthropies and science associations across the country have joined forces to form a Civic Science Fellows program with the underlying goal to steer young academics into a new era of science engagement. To ensure the program is informed by the best available data regarding science communication, a new position centered around civic science was created through the Department of Life Sciences Communication. Emily Howell, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies with a minor in LSC, now fills this role as a postdoctoral researcher focusing on effective science communication and engagement.

This idea of a dialogue between citizens and scientists has received a lot of attention. Dietram A. Scheufele, Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-authored a piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review on the growing concept of civic science and why it is imperative in a time of rapid innovation.

“Civic science is the intersection of science, society, policy, and communication. It entails all these areas coming together in an ongoing conversation focused on new technologies and how we want to deal with them as a society,” stated Scheufele. Technologies like CRISPR and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming common topics of discussion, but the public still holds little knowledge of their possible consequences.

LSC Post Doctoral researcher Emily Howell

The main goal of Howell’s postdoctoral work is to produce a distilled and broadly applicable civic science communication curriculum. This curriculum should be accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds, such as journalists, scientists, individuals from philanthropy groups and science associations. Since those individuals are interested in many different issues and have varied communication goals, this curriculum will help save time and make engagement practices more sustainable for those who lack a background in communication research. Howell also points out that civic science can be used to address the various assumptions that threaten effective communication between communities.

Fostering the growth of civic science aims to change how controversial topics are discussed in the public sphere. Rather than scientists continuously pumping out papers and informing the public of their findings, conversations between experts and non-experts will become more bidirectional. This will not only help bring science and citizens closer together but also allow for greater input from a diverse range of viewpoints. Overall, civic science has great potential to shape the future of science communication practice.

“The promising part is that we are seeing big philanthropic investment in civic science,” Scheufele said. “To have Emily working at the forefront of that, especially here in LSC at UW-Madison, is particularly exciting.”

Story by Jessica Knackert, LSC B.S. ’20 and LSC’s 2019-20 Lenore Landry Scholar