Jenny Luray and Fanuel Muindi

Civic Science Sparks With…Research!America

February 29, 2024

Greetings Civic Science Community,

Fanuel Muindi carries many identities—he is a neuroscientist, a social entrepreneur, and a self-described “civic science scholar–journalist.” Underlying each of these roles is a deep curiosity and hunger for sharing what he is learning with others, across fields and communities. In conversations from Bogotá to Singapore to the United States, he has found, “Civic science allows you to say, ‘Tell me more.’” 

The need for scientists who can wield expertise and curiosity across sectors has only grown—but our training systems for scientists haven’t kept up, writes AAAS President Keith Yamamoto in a recent Science editorial. “To deliver equitable benefits to the public,” he emphasizes, “scientists must be embedded in influential sectors of society—policy, diplomacy, journalism, law, business, education, and more.”

Over the past year, as the Lasker–Research!America Fellow for Civic Science, with support from the Lasker Foundation, Fanuel has been working to map programs that prepare scientists for effective civic science engagement and identify opportunities for improvement. As Fanuel and Jenny Luray, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Public Engagement at Research!America, share in this month’s Civic Science Sparks With…, a key finding from this work is that despite a diverse and rapidly evolving landscape of opportunities, a lack of coordination within and across organizations is limiting their impact.  

We, and many of you, are rolling up our sleeves to help build those connections, with Fanuel’s interactive dashboard a wonderful starting point. And we draw inspiration from the longtime leadership of Research!America, following Research!America President Mary Woolley’s call to address needs of the “on-the-ground future of health and research in this country”—students and early-career leaders—so they can be part of the essential, curiosity-driven work of civic science.


Elizabeth Christopherson
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation

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

Fanuel Muindi: I describe myself as a former neuroscientist turned civic science scholar–journalist and social entrepreneur. I enjoy using my experience to mentor and build tools that support emerging civic science scholars, practitioners, and entrepreneurs.

Jenny Luray: I’ve championed a range of policy issues across the United States R&D ecosystem while in government, industry, and the nonprofit sector. I enjoy using this multi-sector experience to help build connections between scientists and non-scientists.

Elizabeth: What inspires your civic science work?

Fanuel: My drive in the field of civic science is fueled by my passion for making information from the rapidly evolving landscape more navigable for diverse stakeholders. This is essential for fostering collective efforts in finding innovative solutions to the ongoing and complex challenges in science more broadly, thereby promoting progress and impactful change.

Jenny: There are countless people across the country of all ages who would find science interesting, uplifting, and meaningful if only they had the opportunity to experience it—whether in a classroom, an informal learning opportunity, or a conversation with a scientist. It may sound Pollyanna-ish, but I believe our society will be stronger as we pull back the curtain that blocks so much of science from public view and public understanding.

Elizabeth: As you look across today’s civic science training landscape, what are some of the biggest insights, opportunities, or changes in view?

Fanuel and Jenny: Before we started the landscape project, we knew public engagement training opportunities existed, including the Civic Science Fellows Program, but we had big gaps in our understanding. In partnership with the Lasker Foundation, our hope was to create a tool to serve the community of practice and to aid us in building broader acceptance of this training across academia. Now, we can point academic leaders to the landscape and say it’s possible to provide this training, let’s look at the following examples. In the report and dashboard that we released in 2023 examining training in public engagement for scientists in the U.S., a key component of civic science, we uncovered that despite the diversity of training forms (courses, fellowships, degrees, certificates, internships, etc.), a major issue is the lack of coordination among these initiatives both within and across hosting organizations. This siloed approach hinders addressing challenges like curriculum development and communicating the impact of training initiatives just to name a few. A significant opportunity exists to encourage more engagement and coordination among public engagement training designers and other stakeholders to foster effective and unified strategies in this important area of civic science.

Elizabeth: How does this resonate with the other work that Research!America has underway?

Jenny: We know from Research!America’s commissioned survey research that at high levels, three-quarters of the public say it’s part of a scientist’s job to share their research and its impact to both elected officials and the public itself. Unfortunately, too few scientists know how to do this and aren’t provided with the support and tools to learn how.

So, it’s no surprise that despite the public’s expressed interest, scientists are largely invisible. Only a quarter of Americans can name a living scientist. Confidence in whether scientists are working in the public’s interest has slipped in recent years. This is the context in which Research!America has been working with a number of foundation partners to empower effective engagement between the scientific community and the public.

With generous support from the Rita Allen Foundation, our Civic Engagement Microgrant Program is in its sixth year of funding early-career scientists to develop projects in their local communities around issues of common concern.

We’ve seen first-hand what skills are needed to work meaningfully with community members and local public officials. We’ve also seen the barriers our micrograntees face incorporating this work into their training, including a lack of support from advisors. We are convinced more than ever that such training must be part of the graduate school curriculum.

Elizabeth: As a scientist, social entrepreneur, and communicator, Fanuel, how has this landscape work influenced your thinking? Do you have a piece of advice for those seeking bridge-building careers?

Fanuel: The past year doing the landscape work as the Lasker–Research!America Fellow for Civic Science has been a humbling journey for me. The experience brought into sharp focus the rapid pace of change within public engagement training and the important value of lessons being learned by stakeholders on the ground, much of which is not in the public sphere. For me, this has underscored the importance of reaching out “across the aisle” to forge connections, share insights, and collaborate. My advice for those pursuing bridge-building careers is to embrace openness and curiosity. Don’t hesitate to seek advice, feedback, or admit when you don’t know something. It isn’t easy, but it is a worthwhile endeavor. This approach not only fosters personal growth but also helps in finding allies and support within the wider civic science ecosystem.

Elizabeth: As you look toward the future, what is a civic science aspiration for five to ten years from now?

Fanuel and Jenny: Looking toward the future, our aspiration for the next five to ten years is to see a thriving civic science ecosystem with scientists, university leaders, local communities, policymakers, funders, and social entrepreneurs working together to co-create solutions to benefit society. To get there, we need to embed civic science and public engagement training in curriculums starting with STEMM graduate programs. This would lead to more informed decision-making, innovative community-driven initiatives, and a stronger connection between scientists and the local communities where they live.

“Declining public trust in science and the spread of misinformation have highlighted the importance of better connections between scientists and the public. Unfortunately, scientists too often lack training in public engagement and may not know where they can turn to hone their skills. Therefore, the Lasker Foundation and Research!America partnered to delineate the landscape of U.S. civic engagement training opportunities for scientists and to make this information available to key stakeholders. Dr. Muindi has created a comprehensive database of U.S. training opportunities in civic science and designed an innovative ‘one stop’ dashboard to facilitate the ability of trainees, faculty, funders, and policy makers to easily access this information. We are optimistic that the report and dashboard will serve as a springboard, inspiring new discussions, connections, and collaborations that will amplify the reach and impact of public engagement initiatives, ultimately increasing public support for science. The dashboard will continue to evolve with commitments from both our organizations over the next year and most importantly, through engagement with the broader civic science community.”

– Claire Pomeroy, President, Lasker Foundation