Civic Science Sparks With…Agora Institute

August 10, 2023

Greetings Civic Science Community,

Collaboration is often the key to unlocking fundamental new science—and if that new science has the potential to profoundly reshape human life—to understanding how this new research can optimally and broadly benefit humanity.

In an interview with the Association of American Medical Colleges, Jennifer Doudna reflected on both sides of this power. 

“There’s nothing better than having people from different parts of the world, different cultural backgrounds, [and] different educational backgrounds who converge on a question or a problem,” said Dr. Doudna, whose own collaboration with the French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier to develop CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing earned the pair the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “In my experience, that type of collaboration often leads to the very best outcomes in science.”

Today, CRISPR is transforming medicine, agriculture, and industry, with more to come—confirming the profound ethical challenges Dr. Doudna has been calling attention to since the early days of their discovery. After decades of wrestling with these issues, Dr. Doudna again points to the necessity of collaboration. 

“Inviting the scientific community and other stakeholders to engage together on thinking about how this technology is to be used in the future is so important,” she says. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity that we have—but [it] also comes with a lot of responsibility.”

How to foster successful collaborations is itself a science, and a creative practice core to civic science, as collaboration scholar Adam Seth Levine and Agora Institute Civic Science Fellow Lia Kelinsky-Jones reflect below. They challenge us to think more broadly about what collaborations can look like, and to take active steps to help them form—because as important as it is, collaboration often doesn’t happen without an intentional nudge and longer-term practice.

With appreciation for shared efforts to foster and support the power of collaboration, 


Elizabeth Christopherson
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation

Elizabeth Christopherson: How would you introduce yourself to the civic science network?  

Lia Kelinsky-Jones: I focus on how we can develop sustainable, equitable, and climate-resilient food systems and communities. I do so via two areas: applied research looking at the impacts of university-based community engagement and participatory policy approaches. 

Adam Seth Levine: Collaboration between people with diverse forms of expertise is core to civic science. In my work, I focus on the science of collaboration, including discovering new empirical findings, putting those insights into practice, and using those experiences to inform what future research is needed. I do this in part through my role as a professor at Johns Hopkins—conducting new research (often in partnership with practitioners), sharing the results of that research, and teaching and mentoring students. I also apply the insights in a separate nonprofit organization that I run called research4impact, which creates powerful new collaborative relationships between researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

“Our focus on collaborative relationships as a form of policy engagement stems from the fact that the implications of scientific research for policy (and practice) do not speak for themselves, and so back-and-forth interaction between diverse thinkers is essential.” 

-Adam Seth Levine, SNF Agora Institute Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University

Elizabeth: What inspired your work to map university–community policy engagement? 

Lia: I have spent over a decade working at a university whose mission is to serve local and global communities. Concurrently to that, I pursued both my master’s and most of my Ph.D. as a part-time student. As a result, my scholarly and community development interests are informed by that joint experience leading me to think about the roles of universities as partners for change with communities.

Adam: University-based policy engagement is a topic that researchers are increasingly talking about, yet typically they speak from the perspective of supply—that is, what they are doing (what op-eds are they writing, which meetings are they having, and so on). Yet this focus leaves open a key question—to what extent does university-based policy engagement meet demand? 

In our project, we ask: Do decision-makers have the collaborative relationships with researchers that they feel like they need in order to address their top challenges? Our focus on collaborative relationships as a form of policy engagement stems from the fact that the implications of scientific research for policy (and practice) do not speak for themselves, and so back-and-forth interaction between diverse thinkers is essential.

This is a new approach to mapping university–community policy engagement, and as part of her Civic Science Fellowship Lia has developed a brand-new, rich, and exciting demonstration project focused on whether local sustainability officials have an unmet desire to collaborate with climate researchers located at nearby colleges and universities.

Elizabeth: What has been a meaningful experience, connection, or insight from your partnership in the Civic Science Fellows program so far? How might this influence your work ahead?    

Lia: Working with Adam, who approaches this work from a political science lens, has been enriching in helping me deepen as an interdisciplinary scholar and to expand my theoretical and methodological approaches. A second meaningful experience was when, during interviews with local sustainability professionals, they identified the importance of our work and noted more need for our bottom-up approach. Their commentary was validating and a call to action for scholars that we need to prioritize community-based research to effect the change we need around climate action. A third was the opportunity to build a new collaboration with other Civic Science Fellows, which has focused on agroecology as a model of civic science via the case of Puerto Rico.

Elizabeth: What is a key piece of advice you’d offer to others beginning new collaborations together to build momentum toward a culture of civic science?  

Adam: Think broadly about what counts as collaboration, and what your goals are. Sometimes informal collaboration oriented toward knowledge exchange is all that’s needed and all that folks have capacity for. Other times, you may be seeking formal collaboration—projects with shared ownership, decision-making authority, and accountability. In my experience, people often implicitly equate “collaboration” with the formal variety, but informal collaboration is also important. And, either way, we need to be mindful that new collaboration that people would value often does not happen on its own. We need to actively surface and meet any unmet desire to collaborate.

Elizabeth: Would you share a little about your new book and what the civic science community might learn?

Adam: The book is tentatively titled, Collaborate Now! How Expertise Becomes Useful in Civic Life. It will be published by Cambridge University Press, and should be in print by the end of 2023.

Here is a brief overview of the book. Those who seek change—grassroots activists, policymakers, researchers, nonprofit managers, community members—share much in common: they need to work with others, and they need to strategize about what to do. While they each bring valuable expertise to understanding the problems they care about, no single individual knows everything they need to know to develop effective strategy.

New collaborative relationships are essential. They entail back-and-forth interaction with others who bring diverse forms of expertise to the problems that people seek to address. Collaborative relationships are how people go from recognizing a problem (e.g., children from marginalized backgrounds are underperforming in school) to devising a strategy about what to do (e.g., we need an after-school program, we need policy change, this is how to achieve these goals, this is how to evaluate our efforts). Effective strategy enables successful collective action, and effective strategy is the result of talk. 

In short, expertise does not become useful for solving problems in civic life on its own. Rather, it becomes useful when people choose to and feel comfortable sharing their expertise in conversation with others. 

Yet there’s a big catch: valuable new collaborative relationships often do not arise on their own. In Collaborate Now! I unpack why not, and what can we do about it, using a combination of case studies, field experiments, and observational data. Ultimately, my goal is use-inspired basic research: advancing understanding about the science of collaboration in civic life, while also providing actionable guidance for those who seek change and want to foster new relationships themselves.

Elizabeth: What do you see as significant opportunities to build on your civic science work?

Lia: There are a number of opportunities to build on this work. We limited our research to a list of R-1s who committed to public engagement, but there are many more universities actively working in their communities. Expanding the population to more universities and comparing between types (R-1, land-grant universities, HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, etc.) would be instrumental in helping us further understand and refine climate needs nationally. Additionally, the list of universities we used to create our population skewed toward urban. There is a significant amount of interest and importance in understanding rural and urban differences, especially given recent research by Headwaters Economics that indicates rural localities receive less disaster assistance due to lower capacities in local governments. 

A second area to build is to investigate climate needs among food policy actors in local government. Food policy positions are increasing in numbers, but we know little about their policy needs for developing a climate-resilient local food system. There is also a significant amount of importance in investigating climate-resilient food systems at the regional level, given climate impacts affect food systems regionally. I envision this work would investigate how food policy actors nationally are prioritizing climate action locally and regionally, with whom they collaborate, and what areas of unmet need universities and other partners could contribute toward. 

Adam: I want to echo everything that Lia said. What we’re doing right now is essentially a demonstration project of a new approach. Our demand-driven approach to understanding university–community policy engagement can and should be applied in other ways—focused on other substantive challenges, types of universities, types of policymakers, and so on.

“Wicked problems like climate change and the problems associated with our food system require more than science alone to improve. We need to prioritize co-creation with communities that employs multiple forms of knowledge. Only then will we be able to conceive and build communities grounded in sustainability and equity.” 

-Lia Kelinsky-Jones, Agora Institute Civic Science Fellow

Elizabeth: As you look toward the future, what is a civic science aspiration to share? Or a call to action?

Lia: Wicked problems like climate change and the problems associated with our food system require more than science alone to improve. We need to prioritize co-creation with communities that employs multiple forms of knowledge. Only then will we be able to conceive and build communities grounded in sustainability and equity. 

Adam: My vision is a world in which valuable collaborative relationships between people with diverse forms of expertise arise seamlessly.

Following her Civic Science Fellowship, Lia Kelinsky-Jones started a postdoctoral fellowship at Virginia Tech, with funding from the U. S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to pursue participatory policy making toward a climate-resilient food system in Central Appalachia. To learn more about Lia’s research, watch her frank2023 talk.