Members of the Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee with Fellows, host partners, and others during the February 2023 Civic Science Fellows and Partners Convening at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Civic Science Sparks With…Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee

December 5, 2023

Greetings Civic Science Community,

In a season of gratitude and reflection, we are immensely grateful for you and a community of leaders across sectors and fields. When we look at the photo of Fellows and partners gathered on the steps of the National Academy of Sciences, from the beginning of this year, we are reminded how far we’ve come since a 2017 National Academies consensus report pointed to the need for deeper relationships between science communication research and practice. We are now a cross-sector, cross-disciplinary network, representing a rich web of interconnections between research, practice, policymakers, and diverse communities—underscoring the importance of many types of expertise and experience in shaping new ways forward.  

A shining example of our community’s generosity—with time, resources, and expertise—is the Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee. These 12 members of the community represent diverse backgrounds and fields—from science policy to research on communication and collaboration to political philosophy to institutional leadership. They have met monthly since fall 2021 to inform frameworks, language, dialogue, and resources to advance civic science as a growing field of research and area of practice, with the Civic Science Fellows program a central place for experimentation.

The Committee was instrumental in developing our framework of five pillars of civic science learningUnderstanding Science in Context, Designing for Equity and Inclusion, Communicating for the Future, Scaffolding for Learning and Impact, and Leading for Systems Change. They helped us get granular about what learning competencies are needed around each of these pillars, and they showed up again and again as part of the community, in virtual Learning Labs and in person at the final gathering—teaching, advising, questioning—and being open to insights to inform their own work as civic science leaders, demonstrating that learning is a lifelong process.

As we close 2023 with this Civic Science Sparks With…we gather the members of the 2021–23 Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee for a year-end burst of sparks. The Committee members share reflections—and inspire visions for a new year.

With warm wishes,

Elizabeth Christopherson
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation

“New perspectives emerge from more than a single dominant vantage point. They emerge from disagreements and diverse ways of looking at the world. Reconciling those differences is not always easy or comfortable. But that’s what (civic) science is: going beyond our comfort zones.” 

Dietram A. Scheufele, University of Wisconsin–Madison (Committee Chair)

Elizabeth Christopherson: As you reflect on the work of the Practice and Science of Civic Science Committee, to advise the learning and development of the Civic Science Fellows program and field-building, what has been especially meaningful?

Joyce Yen: I have greatly enjoyed meeting so many interesting people and learning from them. I have been exposed to whole new fields and have loved learning how civic science spans so many boundaries. 

Tiffany Taylor: In my tenure as part of the Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee, it has been especially meaningful to ideate and strategically plan in an environment that truly feels like a collective. Everyone maintained a posture of humility and appreciated the fact that we all have something to teach and something to learn. This culture of collective humility also influenced how the personal goals and expertise of the Fellows were consistently taken up to shape what their own learning through the program would look like. A rare space where “nothing about us, without us” felt upheld. 

Dietram A. Scheufele: Throughout my career, I have benefitted tremendously from mentors and collaborators “paying it forward,” supporting me without any expectation of reciprocity or benefit to them. This is what the Committee—in my experience—has been all about: paying it forward and elevating the work of what we know will be the next generation of thinkers and change makers. 

Percival Matthews: Simply put? I’ve felt like I’ve been invited to help build something new and meaningful and important. I feel like my research work and my admin work allows me to do interesting and impactful things, but something about this project feels potentially generative in a qualitatively different way. 

Adam Seth Levine: The Committee is a vibrant, inspiring group of people from many walks of life at the interface of science and society. Every interaction models the best of what civic science is—people with diverse forms of expertise engaging directly with each other, figuring out how best to move forward. 

Peter Levine: I have learned from the new generation of professionals who work at the intersection of science and public life and have been inspired by their passion and sophistication. They are now an important part of my professional network and my intellectual community. 

Nikhila Kalra: As an evaluation partner to the program, It has been really meaningful to be involved in helping the Civic Science community shape a stronger shared vision for the aspirations, goals, and outcomes of civic science—articulating what a more equitable culture of science in society actually looks like from many different vantage points: from increasing community agency in science, to shaping institutional norms, to fostering a public culture of accessibility and belonging with regard to science. I’m excited to continue to think with the Committee, Fellows, and other partners about how we measure progress and impact against these ambitious goals as work develops in the future. 

Ágnes Horvát: One rarely can think through essential questions related to field-building and human development as part of a wise and enthusiastic group. I am deeply grateful to fellow Committee members, Rita Allen’s leadership and staff, and the Civic Science Fellows for inspiring discussions about fundamental open questions: Which skills will the Fellows need in this emerging field? How can we equip them with those key competencies? But also, how do we steer the civic science field early on so that it welcomes the knowledge and core values of the talent we aim to support? Rita Allen and its funding partners have engaged relevant stakeholders so that we could address these questions in parallel, exploiting synergies that benefit both the field and the Fellows. In this dual pursuit, the task of this Committee was similar to the visionary brainstorming that streaming companies had the fortune to do when revolutionizing entertainment by taking control of both the distribution and production of content. 

Mariette DiChristina: In creating an idea for the first-ever online master’s certificate in civic science communication, I had the privilege of practicing what we “preach” in bidirectional engagement and co-creation with many community stakeholders. It gave me new insights into the power of civic science to help foster a better world. 

“The benefits of science should be accessible to all of society, but to achieve that we must create space in the science enterprise for the people whose quality of life will improve because of new knowledge to make better decisions, innovation that makes the day-to-day a little easier, solutions to thorny problems, and much-awaited cures.” 

Frances Colón, Center for American Progress

Elizabeth Christopherson: What’s your “why” for civic science—and for co-creating the boundary-spanning Civic Science Fellows program?

Frances Colón: The benefits of science should be accessible to all of society, but to achieve that we must create space in the science enterprise for the people whose quality of life will improve because of new knowledge to make better decisions, innovation that makes the day-to-day a little easier, solutions to thorny problems, and much awaited cures. The Civic Science Fellows program has created a bridge between the science and communities through its network of boundary-spanning Fellows at the intersection of communication, policy, organizing, technology, and community leadership. These Fellows erase the limits of who can translate the science, how it should be accessed, how it can be shaped and funded, and many other system barriers for the benefit of us all. 

Mariette DiChristina: Our world requires multidisciplinary approaches to tackle complex society challenges but suffers from a fractured—and fractious—communication ecosystem and distrust of expertise. For all of these reasons, we need to master the principles of trust-building communication and genuine bidirectional engagement, and to apply them across a variety of platforms to engage communities inclusively. Civic science will make a world of difference. 

Kirsten Ellenbogen: Civic science is a space where you can ask “What’s your evidence,” as well as “For whom,” To what end,” and other questions that integrate human context and scientific practices. 

Ágnes Horvát: Despite the long history of trying to strengthen critical ties between science and society, only a few people contribute to creating scientific knowledge. Conversely, not everyone can benefit equally from scientific advances. We must build more (agile) infrastructure and human capital to foster the still elusive connection between science and society. 

Nikhila Kalra: After nearly five years working with the Civic Science Fellows program, I find myself coming back to the idea (articulated by many Fellows and partners along the way) of wonder: I am inspired by the potential of civic science to cultivate curiosity and engender discovery; to expand people’s access not just to the material benefits of science, but also to the awe and wonder it can hold. 

Peter Levine: Science is powerful and (to some extent) undervalued, but it is also sometimes problematic. Its relationship with democratic institutions is fraught. Civic Science moves beyond diagnosing and criticizing that situation and works to develop model solutions. 

Adam Seth Levine: Civic science elevates a core value: that in order for scientific advances to truly solve our most pressing problems, we need people with diverse forms of expertise—scientists, community leaders, policymakers, advocates, and so on—to be directly engaged in collaborative relationships with each other. These relationships promise to help people figure out how to effectively and equitably solve problems, while also enriching democratic agency.    

Percival Matthews: The way the project was pitched to me spoke to me very deeply. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s the idea that there are some very important problems that we really need to solve and that the leviathan—the government—either isn’t equipped to solve or isn’t intent upon solving. In a parallel vein, I remember being deeply disturbed by late summer 2020 when I realized that many of our most powerful universities were in a state of stasis and fear waiting for someone to take the lead or to give the ok when they held the power to help us navigate a hundred-year crisis. I found that incredibly frustrating, and the idea that we could help unleash a motivated and talented group—one capable of divergent thinking that lives at least partially independent of those institutions and their red tape—also appealed to me. I heard of civic science and thought, “Yeah. It’s time.”

Dietram A. Scheufele: Civic science is about changing or at least tweaking the DNA of our scientific enterprise. Science is an ongoing process that will always be both imperfect and also the best way we have for producing, curating, and using knowledge in society. Civic science, in other words, is about expanding Newton’s metaphor of standing on the shoulders of giants. New perspectives emerge from more than a single dominant vantage point. They emerge from disagreements and diverse ways of looking at the world. Reconciling those differences is not always easy or comfortable. But that’s what (civic) science is: going beyond our comfort zones. 

Tiffany Taylor: As both a consumer and producer, I’ve been able to appreciate the many benefits that come by way of science. I’ve also witnessed long-standing injustices that continue to persist as a result of the power imbalances that are associated with science. I see civic science as one way to better realize the vision of science as a public good that yields equitable, ethical, and effective outcomes for all communities, and feel honored to be a part of preparing the next generation of leaders dedicated to moving the needle on this front. 

“My advice would be to continue to be forward thinking about the data, computing, communications, and research architectures we need to build to be able to influence a world that we’ve engineered to operate and change at inhuman speeds.” 

Percival Matthews, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Elizabeth Christopherson: With rapidly emerging science and technology, what rises to the top for you—new learning, evidence-based practice and supports—to prepare a new generation of leaders to broaden the benefits of scientific progress? What advice would you offer the next cohort of Fellows and partners?

Joyce Yen: Stay curious. Listen actively.   

Tiffany Taylor: Distribution of power rises to the top for me the most. While this may not be required when it comes to who gets to innovate, the decision-making process about how the innovations gets deployed could accommodate broader input especially given the potential widespread impact. To this end, I would simply advocate for issues of equity, justice, and power to be a priority and not an “add-on” as part of the work to be pursued. 

Dietram A. Scheufele: The Civic Science Imperative, as Brooke Smith and Elizabeth Christopherson and I called it five years ago, remains as urgent as ever: How can we not just improve existing structures, but rethink the scientific enterprise from the ground up? What would we imagine it to be if we started from scratch today? In all likelihood, we all have a slightly different vision of what this imagined world of science would look like. Working toward our shared vision of a possible future is what civic science is all about. 

Percival Matthews: One prospect that intrigues me most about this moment in history is the frighteningly rapid and accelerating pace of change. I fear that we may have hit an inflection point at which history, while remaining important, really is going to be less and less the place to look for answers. To the extent that extant data are “historical,” it may be that past evidence provides us with less and less leverage compared with the ability to process incoming streams of new data in real time or with quick turnaround. Basically, the time course for decay on a utility function for data may be fundamentally different than it has ever been before. So for me, I think new learning is where the power is. And specifically, new learning that allows us to collect and process massive amounts of data in ways that humans can’t do without help from computer-powered data analytics. This means my advice would be to continue to be forward thinking about the data, computing, communications, and research architectures we need to build to be able to influence a world that we’ve engineered to operate and change at inhuman speeds. 

Adam Seth Levine: Too often, those with the diverse forms of expertise needed to broaden the benefits of scientific progress—scientists, community leaders, policymakers, advocates, and so on—are strangers to one another. Strangers tend to remain strangers if left to their own devices. Thus, individually, each of us needs to figure out what kinds of new collaborative relationships we need to improve the communities we care about. Collectively, we need to think about how to make those new relationships happen wherever they’re needed. 

Peter Levine: This is not necessarily the highest priority, but I would encourage exploration of topics that mainly come from the humanities and the social sciences, e.g., rigorous thinking about how to define “science” and theories about how science relates to power. 

Ágnes Horvát: The most critical feat is to remain open to learning and questioning one’s preconceptions. This sort of flexibility of mind is necessary, especially for boundary-spanners in emerging fields, as it allows them to pivot based on unforeseeable twists and turns taken by efforts that operate at multiple levels of society involving decision-makers in academia, industry, and policy. 

Mariette DiChristina: Building understanding and community through civic science isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also fun and mind-expanding if we can embrace the experience for the potential it unlocks in us all.