Civic Science Sparks With…EDGI
November 30, 2022
Greetings Civic Science Community,
Across research and civic institutions there is growing consensus that addressing the complex issues we face in society—climate change, emerging technologies, COVID-19 and future pandemics—requires partnerships and teams that enable diverse viewpoints and expertise to come together, sparking innovative approaches that benefit all of us.
As Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) Civic Science Fellows Mark Chambers and Kelsey Breseman share below, such partnerships are important factors in their work. From the civic science network, from the communities where they work, and from their boundary-spanning host organizations, Fellows are building their “team of concerned humans” (in Mark’s words) to help make the connections they need to journey across fields and cultures.
The environmental data space offers a key example of why we need more of these boundary-spanning teams. As the development of environmental monitoring data and tools accelerates, civic science approaches expand access to tools, analysis, and collective action so our civic decisions and institutions can reflect the voices of the people most affected.
Meeting these new challenges and opportunities requires new approaches, in partnership—as modeled by EDGI and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which supports the EDGI Civic Science Fellows. The Packard Foundation has just released a new strategic framework centering the need for approaches to “solve for the multifaceted dynamics and underlying root causes threatening people and the planet.”
As Kelsey highlights, this kind of evolution is part of our civic responsibility—recognizing that whenever we engage together in science and in society, we shape our future.
With appreciation for Fellows, partners and growing community,
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation
Elizabeth Christopherson: How would you describe yourself to the civic science network?
Mark Chambers: I am a trained historian who researches, teaches, and writes about the environment’s history. I am particularly drawn to the intersections between American society, environments, and technologies. I’m currently serving as the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) Civic Science Fellow. EDGI explores how environmental, climate, and data governance can be reimagined to protect the most vulnerable, and how governing agencies and industries can be held more accountable through collaborative, community-centered environmental research, technology, and decision-making. I am working on a project that assesses whether or how well the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serves marginalized communities and suggests remedies for improving those services.
Kelsey Breseman: I’m an activist and engineer. My fellowship at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative is to make data tools more useful in furthering community-grounded environmental justice—from building novel data tools, to exploring federal data interface usability, to influencing the development of new data technologies to include environmental justice perspectives (e.g. environmentalenforcementwatch.org).
Christopher Sellers: I’m a co-founder and longtime Project Lead at the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, and also a professor of environmental history and studies at Stony Brook University in New York.
Elizabeth: What inspires you to do the work that you do?
Kelsey: I think that people deserve to feel powerful over their own lives and the societies they live in. This is my North Star: does this work help others to live according to their values? Can it enable more people and communities to shape their world? I see this as a fundamental tenet of democracy and the guiding theme of my life’s work.
Mark: This fellowship has offered me the opportunity to build on my previous work on environmental justice issues with EDGI, collaborating with a team of researchers and academics on the interview project with current and recent EPA staff and EJ activists. At EDGI, I am inspired by the work of my colleague the geographer, environmental scientist, science communicator, community developer, sociologist, epidemiologists, and historian. This team of concerned humans has allowed me to embrace my own paradigm shift, moving me from early American history to a broader history of the United States, researching how EPA officials and environmental justice advocates approach data. I am presently developing a narrative that can be disseminated into actionable policy recommendations to help make the environmental data collected and distributed by governmental agencies more integrated, accessible, and community-centric.
Elizabeth: What are you most excited about your Civic Science Fellowship right now? How is your work influencing others?
Mark: The Fellowship has offered me much needed support at this stage of my career. I have been able to spend valuable time thinking about important contemporary issues, such as the need to address environmental equity. In other words, this training has and continues to move me to envision how my fellowship activities, scholarship, and interactions with other fellows may lead to the development of courses that will encourage a forum where students can share ideas, knowledge, and experiences to help us better understand what environmental justice looks like beyond the lecture hall. While I am still imagining how my work may influence other networks, the fellowship has connected me with the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to EPA. This connection has guided my understanding about how important it is for the EPA to consistently accept valuable community data for integration with EPA priorities and initiatives. Entering the culminating months of the fellowship, I hope to offer a roadmap of change through policy recommendations that would guide the EPA to better address frontline communities’ data needs.
Kelsey: I just had a session accepted to the Earth Science Information Partners winter meeting that I’m very excited about: we will be pulling together speakers from across government agencies as well as community advocacy organizations to discuss and coordinate across their approaches to environmental justice. Over the course of the Fellowship, I’ve had the opportunity to help the EPA build more usable interfaces for their permit violation public email notification tool and their new benzene fenceline monitoring dashboard, and to demonstrate and solicit feedback on these and our own data tools to various environmental justice communities to see how well they address communities’ needs for environmental governance data. I’m really looking forward to bringing environmental justice workers from these different spaces into direct and future-focused conversation with each other.
Elizabeth: What role can civic science play in cases brought before the courts, with the current Sackett v. EPA case in front of the Supreme Court as an example? Or in the civic sphere?
Chris: Among the reasons we’re investigating why an agency like the EPA has been reluctant to fully embrace civic science is that the courts generally only support formal, professional science in justifying official regulatory policy. Yet, at least as I understand the Sackett case, as a historian, its plaintiffs seek to roll back an expanded definition of those “waters of the U.S.” covered by the Clean Water Act that was itself a by-product of a deepening scientific understanding of the aqueous interlinkages below as well as above ground that constitute watersheds. Instead, the Supreme Court is being asked to return our nation to an older definition of what’s covered under this bedrock pollution law, to ground this definition less in science than in legalistic notions and precedents. Whether or not the court case is decided in favor of the plaintiffs, I think civic science can have a role especially in demonstrating the myriad actual ways that pollution does spread in watersheds, hence the need for an expanded definition of “waters.” While at present, civic science’s potential role in such demonstrations will likely be confined to public pressure via civic spheres, I look forward to a day when civic science can also have a stronger and more respected role in judicial deliberations as well.
Mark: My hope is that the Supreme Court will not tamper with the Clean Water Act, the purpose of which is to protect communities from pollution, prior to the EPA having the opportunity to revise the definition of “Waters of the United States” and to update the regulatory requirements for water quality certification under Clean Water Act Section 401. It is important to remember that civic science is, in essence, about understanding the systems and the inputs being examined, in part to offer necessary contextualization of the outputs. Related to the Sackett case, it is important to understand the system as a legal framework that is not necessarily responsive to scientific findings, it is all about what is perceived as practical implementation rather than environmental impact.
Kelsey: There is no clear line between political fact and scientific fact. Both science and politics are human-made tools for understanding truths about the world, and while certainly some of their jurisdiction is clear (the speed of light as science-centered; candidate platforms as belonging to the political sphere), all knowledge is situated, and all science is done or not done, funded or not funded, based on existing human systems, biases, frameworks. Civic science is critical for identifying and navigating that substantial overlap. In the Sackett case, science should tell us how to meaningfully define a water system; civics should decide on appropriate definitions for “meaningful” and “system.” Civic science combines these fields to identify the implications of these definitional choices; both the social and the ecological outcomes of these choices need to be well understood as part of one story, process, system, as a prerequisite of an informed ruling—and that full understanding is within the realm of civic science.
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?
Kelsey: The Fellows program has been an invaluable source of connection and camaraderie, especially speaking candidly with the other women in my peer coaching circle about not just our work, but our varied backgrounds and stages of life and career. I know I can draw on my Fellowship peers for advice, introductions, and ideas for years to come, and can invite them into my future projects as well.
Mark: One of my EDGI project goals is writing about the co-designing tools that should be accessible and useful to community partners. During our April 12th Fellows Lab, which directed our attention to the community in community science, our partners at Thriving Earth Exchange noted putting the principles and goals of active listening, co-creation, and authenticity into action when positioning communities at the heart of civic science. To advance community priorities, Thriving Earth Exchange influenced me to think differently about how communities and scientists can do science together. They emphasized how researchers can support bottom-up, community-driven projects rather than initiating research based on their own interests and questions. Honestly, prior to entering the Fellows program I understood this in my head; however, now these lessons have migrated to my heart. Thriving Earth Exchange and EDGI have given me the tools to write about developing respectful partnerships with communities, researchers and other experts with specialized skills when considering a community’s needs to effectively employ narratives to shift policy the direction of environmental justice communities.
Chris: I’ve found it meaningful to take part as I’ve been able in this community of Civic Science Fellows and their supporters, and have also appreciated the creative and supportive atmosphere cultivated by the program sponsors. I’ve learned how civic science has many more dimensions than I’d previously imagined. It touches upon and can enrich a diversity of projects, each with their own goals and understandings. Being a part of this community has laid bare for me just how broad and manifold the intersections are between science and society in our modern world. Thanks in important part to our participation in the Fellows program, I and my colleagues at EDGI are contemplating ways ahead that draw inspiration from what we’ve seen there, to broaden the scope and directions of our own work.
Elizabeth: Why did EDGI want two Civic Science Fellows this round?
Chris: We proposed two Civic Science Fellows this round because we saw the opportunity for advancing an overall project of greater and more balanced scope than was possible with a single fellowship. On the one hand, we saw huge opportunities for a Fellow skilled in data and related science to make significant headway along the frontiers EDGI had been opening up in the stewardship, synthesis, and communication of federal environmental data, starting with our Environmental Enforcement Watch project. On the other hand, our policy research had opened many questions about how data and science had mediated environmental justice groups’ ongoing quest to draw more attention and protections from the EPA. So, we saw great potential in having a Civic Science Fellow who could tackle these historical and ongoing experiences of EJ community groups with the EPA, in which their civic science initiatives were so critical. Moreover, we felt that having both these fellowships run at the same time would prove mutually informing and reinforcing. While the two Fellows brought different skills and perspectives to bear, they shared a common goal that we hoped would make their two projects synergetic: how government approaches to and reliance on environmental data and science can be better reconciled with more community-based approaches exemplified by civic science.
Elizabeth: What are some of the biggest opportunities for civic science from an environmental data and governance perspective?
Chris: The first of the three arenas of opportunity I’d single out, we’ve found that not just despite but because of the profusion of federal environmental data, there’s a real need for a kind of intermediate civic science work in data stewardship and sense-making. It involves tapping, mirroring, synthesizing, translating, and communicating data already collected by the government so that this information can better inform and empower affected communities, as one branch of our fellows project is exploring, in important part by better addressing the needs of local environmental advocacy. That need is especially acute in environmental justice or “disadvantaged” communities, where environmental dangers often converge alongside other kinds of burdens.
A second arena of opportunity, which another branch of our Fellows project is pursuing, involves surveying and analyzing the many accumulating trends and trajectories that have made so much official decision-making indifferent to civic science. An agency like the EPA, which for decades has resisted pushes from environmental justice and other groups to take civic science more seriously, requires this kind of analysis in order to chart more civic-science-friendly ways forward, whether in enforcement or permitting. We are finding it may require reexamining fundamental assumptions about how environmental governance is supposed to work.
Thirdly, recent advancements in monitoring technology may well be nudging the reliability, resolution, and accuracy of community-based monitoring and other civic science closer to, even comparable with, those of government monitoring programs. Though much of this new technology remains expensive, it may soon offer local communities greater control and sovereignty over their own, legally actionable environmental monitoring data. It could become an effective means for redressing the local power imbalances that are so common between powerful polluters and polluted communities, tilting agency and judicial decisions more in the communities’ favor.
Elizabeth: What is your civic science aspiration for the future?
Mark: After an introduction to this work in 2020, and how the fellowship has expanded my ideas about civic science I hope to continue. I want to apply this civic science knowledge to guide students from multiple disciplines to explore civic science and the intentional examining of the scientific or pseudoscientific (e.g. regulatory) systems in place. Hopefully students will learn to apply scientific methods for solutions to disparities in health and equity related challenges in historical and contemporary contexts of environmental justice through the strategic delivery of community-centric data policy recommendations.
Kelsey: I see civic participation as a duty, not a right, and I want to spread that philosophy among my networks—especially scientists and engineers, who are often not taught to question the morality of systems in which we do our work. All the work we do is world-building, and should be done with great intentionality. I want to keep working with EDGI to build a more just and participatory democracy around environmental governance; I’ll keep bringing my data science skills to the universal healthcare initiative I’m volunteer data director of in my home state of Washington; and I’m building a curriculum I’m calling “practical civics” at my alma mater, Olin, for the spring for engineers to engage in activist projects. My aspiration is to bring a civically engaged mindset and scientifically informed approach to all aspects of my work, life, and communities—civic science not just as a discipline, but as a practice and a lens on the world.