Building a Culture of Civic Science at the National Academies Science Communication Colloquium

June 24, 2022

Civic Science Fellows panel begins at 1:43:43

Held over three days, two coasts, and in hybrid virtual spaces, the 5th National Academies Science Communication Colloquium this month gathered researchers, science communicators, funders, and others to reflect on how science communication can and must be reimagined in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Click through to the recordings above for a wealth of insights from research and practice on lessons for science communication from the pandemic, promising approaches for strengthening connections and collaboration with communities around science and health, and approaches for addressing the challenges ahead.
Members of the Civic Science Fellows community shared the program as one model of what future collaboration around science engagement can look like—co-designed as a “lab” to experiment with collective approaches, rooted in evidence, centered in equity, to co-create a new culture of civic science. 

Read encore excerpts for more sparks, momentum, and actions from Rita Allen Foundation CEO and President Elizabeth Christopherson and panelists:

  • Caroline Montojo, President and CEO, Dana Foundation and Civic Science Fellows Funding Partner
  • Adam Seth Levine, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Agora Institute and Civic Science Fellows Host Partner
  • Jylana L. Sheats, Civic Science Fellow, Aspen Institute
  • Nicole Krause, Civic Science Fellow, University of Wisconsin-Madison and John Templeton Foundation
  • Mariette DiChristina, Boston University and Civic Science Fellows Advisory Committee Member and Host Partner


Elizabeth Christopherson: What is something that has emerged in your time as part of the Civic Science Fellows Network– new thinking, approaches, changes on the ground – and what relationships or approaches were crucial to facilitating that emergence, insight, or success? 

Caroline Montojo: Something new that has emerged for me is experiencing the power of community exchange in the civic science network. I’m always learning something new from this community. For example, Lomax Boyd is a Civic Science Fellow hosted by Jeff Khan at the Berman Institute at Johns Hopkins, and just put out a paper showing how cognitive psychology and polarization studies can inform the design of effective bidirectional public engagement on neuroethics issues. This is relevant to the work of the Dana Foundation’s Barbara Gill Civic Science Fellow, Claire Weichselbaum, who is developing inclusive, scalable, evidence-based approaches to neuroscience public engagement with an emphasis on neuroethics.

Mariette DiChristina: Journalists say “show, don’t tell.” We mean that it’s more impactful to learn actively from the experience of reading, seeing, or hearing the specific anecdotes and narrative details, rather than passively as a result of the author or producer telling us what the lesson was. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by the tremendous power of experiencing the process of co-creation of knowledge in the Civic Science Fellows program.  But I was—and I am delighted! The knowledge much richer from the diverse array of perspectives, and doing it collaboratively has fostered creation of a culture of civic science.

Adam Seth Levine: Two words immediately come to mind: substance and process. First, I’ve gained a much greater understanding of the substantive issues at the heart of civic science, including societal challenges raised by specific advances (e.g. AI, gene editing, neuroscience) and also the ways in which scientific research needs to inform policy and practice. Second, I’ve also seen how we need to better understand the process of civic science — that is, how to bring people with diverse forms of expertise (including scientific, place-based, contextual, and other vital forms of expertise) into new collaborative relationships with each other, so that we can articulate a vision of the kind of society we want to live in and ensure that scientific advances help advance that vision.

Nicole Krause: My first thought in response to this question is how grateful I have been that the fellowship project I’m working on started out from the beginning with infrastructure for research-practice partnerships. I had letters of support from specific organizations who were interested collaborating on this work and sharing their knowledge. So, as an example, my project started with an open line of communication to the organization BioLogos, which focuses specifically on reaching faith-based communities with information and resources regarding scientific topics. Through that infrastructure built directly into the fellowship, I was invited to BioLogos’s annual conference, where I saw their work in action, and I have been fortunate enough to meet with them about the knowledge they’ve gained over years of doing this work. They have jump-started my understanding of where faith-based science audiences are coming from, and I am looking forward to sharing my learnings with them as well. The CSF program makes it easier, in ways like this, to break out of academic “silos,” so-to-speak.

Jylana L. Sheats: I have been amazed by the Civic Science Fellows in my cohort. We all work and/or study in an array of disciplines and have diverse educational and professional backgrounds. While not initially obvious, it’s now clear to me as to why each of us is here and what the CSF leadership had in mind when selecting this cohort. We each bring a different perspective, tools and methods, and unique insights to the “problem to be solved” or conversation.  It’s been through our weekly discussions,  adhoc 1:1 meetings, Slacks or the occasional “Fellow Hellow” informal chats where we are able to delve a bit deeper to uncover synergies and opportunities to co-create and collaborate.  I’ve been in my career for nearly two decades and have always been a proactive go-getter, a connector— but at the same time a little cautious, or reserved. But this fellowship and the community that we have built has sparked something new in me. In some ways I’ve been pushed all the way outside of my comfort zone, and I absolutely love it. The fellowship has afforded myself and likely other fellows with the time and space to deeply explore and lean into our passions and/or other interests, hear unique interdisciplinary perspectives, learn about new concepts, frameworks and methodologies—and connect with individuals with whom we may not have otherwise engaged.  Through my work at the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program and new relationships through the CSF network of fellows (Cohort 1 and 2), host sites, and CSF leadership in new, exciting— and unexpected ways. Highlights of collaborations with fellows include podcast-like science communication and storytelling videos with Martina Efeyini; co-editing a digital magazine, the OneHealth / One Planet Magazine with Dr. Daren Ginete;  co-designing a forthcoming human-centered design workshop centered on fellows’ civic science projects  (Dr. Andrew George, Nicky Krause, and Emelia Williams); and science advising for Black to the Land Coalition through the networks of cohort 1 fellow, Dr. Natasha  Udu-Gama. We are only 9 months into the fellowship and I can’t wait to see where things go!


Elizabeth Christopherson: How can we continue to build momentum for civic science? And relatedly, what kind of implementation research is needed to build accessible on-ramps for diverse civic scientists and communities? 

Nicole Krause: Concepts like intellectual humility and conversational receptivity have been showing promise in overcoming some social conflict and societal divides, so a better understanding of how to implement these ideas in science communication campaigns and public engagement initiatives seems like a productive pathway to building on-ramps with communities who may feel alienated from scientific institutions. But there are some unanswered questions, maybe especially in science contexts. One thing that concerns me, for example, is that adopting a position of humility or willingness to alter an original position is not always perceived well. It can read as weakness, as abandonment of principles, or, maybe most relevant in science contexts, as denying expertise and authority or fueling the idea that there’s “no single truth.” I find these reactions to humility disturbing for our culture and our democracy. If social pressures amidst polarization render it “uncool” to admit uncertainty or to “concede” any points, or “uncool” to admit that dissimilar others may have some good points despite also having flaws, then we’re in serious trouble. Putting this point in science contexts, if we can’t admit that maybe so-called “science denialists” might have some legitimate views, then we’ll never look back at ourselves with a critical eye.

Jylana L. Sheats: The Aspen Science and Society program serves as a “laboratory” to test ideas and approaches that  explain, connect, and maximize the benefits of science for public good. We strive to be early responders to emerging trends and stay on the pulse of critical issues at the intersection of science and society. Our Future is Science, national joint initiative with Coda Societies, is a great example of this. The initiative was created in response to  youth activism for scientific societal issues like climate change and environmental justice; calls for racial and social justice; and the COVID-19 pandemic, which  illuminated long-lasting, persistent disparities and injustices in communities of color— making many of those who once turned a blind eye, face the realities of today.  

Coupled with the fact that the scientific workforce has long lacked diversity and that systems/institutions often discourage those of underrepresented and/or historically marginalized groups from pursuing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) education and careers, the OFIS initiative is a reaction to barriers experienced by these groups and links STEAM and social justice. So when you talk about an “on-ramp,” for civic science, with OFIS, it’s making science relevant to lived experiences  and valuing students’ cultural and local knowledge, or what Dr. Jason Corburn at the University of California-Berkeley refers to as contextual intelligence. We value this—and having an understanding of context and community has been critical for the participatory-design of our bespoke STEAM-social justice curriculum as well as the implementation of projects focused on how students can solve problems in their community through science- based or -informed solutions. Thus, making science relevant and communicating about it in a way that resonates with communities makes science accessible and helps build momentum.

Mariette DiChristina: The National Academies and the foundations such as Rita Allen have created the sparks for civic science. Academia, which plans on decades-long time horizons, now needs to do its part to build on those sparks. I’d like to see the first university center for civic science, which could provide ongoing support in teaching, research (including how to create on ramps for diverse civic scientists), and service to the communities.

Caroline Montojo: There is a phrase: Momentum begets momentum. As an initiation of momentum, I believe that we in the civic science community need to clearly articulate and demonstrate the value of civic science work to those who may not yet see its relevance to science. Then as a continuation of momentum, these ambassadors for civic science can use those value demonstrations, to champion and inspire greater funder investment and university institutional commitment into civic science work. I think that we need more implementation research on incentives and sustainable infrastructures for science researchers to engage with diverse civic scientists and communities.

Adam Seth Levine: New norms are essential for building momentum. Arguably one of the most important norms associated with civic science involves collaborative relationships — people with diverse forms of expertise engaging in back-and-forth interaction to exchange knowledge and come to a broader understanding of issues facing their community. Collaborative relationships are also relatively accessible and low-cost, and are a necessary precursor to any longer-term working relationship. Thus, I would argue one of the most accessible and impactful ways to build momentum is to create as many new opportunities for collaborative relationships as possible, and also ensure that people have the skills needed to productively and equitably engage with each other. 


Elizabeth Christopherson: What is a “next most elegant step” that we could each take to build the civic science community and culture change? Why and where could it lead us? 

Jylana L. Sheats: There are a number of “next elegant steps,” but what I see as “low hanging fruit” would be to share with and educate the public about the work that fellows are leading through their host organizations. The approach and channel through which to communicate should depend on the audience. This is by no means novel per se, but we just need to actually do it. We can define civic science for the public and show them tangible examples and impacts through our own work. I know that there is an interest among fellows to create a special Civic Science Fellows journal issue centered on our projects and any outputs. I love this idea, but we can also leverage new media  by creating a blog series with an accompanying podcast where fellows are interviewed; utilizing social media or creating easy-to-understand infographics. We could also add to the proliferation of post-COVID-19 webinars which are convenient or host community/stakeholder meetings that are live streamed. This is not an exhaustive list, but when it’s all said and done it’s up to us to figure out the right modalities to best explain and demonstrate what cvic science is, looks like, and what it means for communities.

Adam Seth Levine: It is often far too easy for proponents of civic science to identify the kinds of new collaborative relationships and institutions that they think are necessary. Yet as an immediate next step I think we each need to take time to learn what kind of collaborative relationships people want to be having, and what kinds of institutions they see as necessary for fostering those new relationships. Surveys, interviews, and participant observation are all extremely helpful for measuring the unmet desire for civic science, and they can then provide a strong foundation for creating new opportunities, institutions, and policies.

Caroline Montojo: I think the “next most elegant step” is to have members of this civic science community – the fellows, hosts, funders, and other partners – broadly share concrete examples that demonstrate the value of civic science. From my perspective as a funder, I can share the work of Civic Science Fellows with our potential new grantees and institutions, so that they can learn from or adopt new civic science knowledge and approaches directly into their future programs.

Mariette DiChristina: It’s a big step but elegant: I’d like to see the first university center for civic science, which could then provide ongoing support in teaching, research, and service to the communities. I also would also like to see civic science engagement rewarded for tenure and promotion; so one more elegant step would be to create Master’s certificates or degrees in civic science.

Nicole Krause: I think that, if I had to distill one turn my work is taking at this point, it would be that I’m trying to better understand how we can effective foster and communicate intellectual humility in science contexts. So, if that’s a big goal, then I’m looking at the next elegant step in that direction. I might be misunderstanding what the next elegant step is, exactly, but I think a pretty straightforward thing might be to take any given question we’ve been asking about alleged cracks in our science-society interfaces, and just start flipping those questions around. When we ask: “Why do publics lack knowledge, or the right kinds of knowledge, in forming their views of science?” A next elegant step, then, is also asking: “Where is scientific knowledge insufficient to move toward our goals? What kinds of knowledge are we missing?” Or, similarly, when we say: “How are publics’ value systems and moral codes interfering with their acceptance of scientific facts?” Then, the next elegant step is to ask: “How might our values and our moral codes, within the scientific community be contributing to forms of social discord, or interfering with achievement of our goals?” This might be an easy trick to start a kind of cultural reform within science itself. Making it a habit, basically, to be reflexive and open to science having flaws, without thinking that admitting those flaws is giving ammunition to our alleged “enemies.”