Civic Science Sparks With…The Kavli Foundation and Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics
August 30, 2022
Advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology over recent decades are breathtaking, and accelerating. They are an example of the power of partnerships to catalyze scientific breakthroughs—from the work of early-career scientists who run with their ideas using risk capital from foundations, including Rita Allen, to the vast BRAIN Initiative—a partnership between scientists, research institutions, federal agencies, and private funders to drive the neuroscience revolution, with philanthropic leadership from The Kavli Foundation.
Like so many advances in science and technology, the powerful new possibilities opening up in neuroscience spark a need for collaboration beyond the sciences as well, to support a path of scientific discovery of the greatest benefit to humanity—the “Civic Science Imperative,” as we called it in a 2018 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, coauthored with Brooke Smith, now Director of Science and Society at The Kavli Foundation, and Dietram Scheufele, a leading science communication scholar at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Scanning the promise of partnerships in the sciences, philanthropy, and the social sector, we wrote: “We are eager to gather in a similarly collaborative fashion with others interested in engaging in the challenging process of building a diverse, widespread, and resilient culture of civic science.”
Less than two years after publishing “The Civic Science Imperative,” Brooke, Dietram, The Kavli Foundation, and Rita Allen were in a core group of collaborators who turned this vision into reality—we welcomed the first cohort of 15 Civic Science Fellows in 2020. Since then, the Fellows “lab” has become a real and energized space to experiment with innovative approaches, rooted in evidence, centered in equity, to co-create a new culture of civic science. With a growing community including host partners, funding partners, advisors, and Fellows—and a new cohort of 21 Fellows joining in 2021—we have engaged more than 1,000 scientists, community leaders, and civic scientists across this network through virtual convenings and programs to support learning and connection.
Among those in our network is Lomax Boyd, a researcher and creative producer who, with support from The Kavli Foundation, is serving as the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics Civic Science Fellow, in partnership with the Kavli Neurodiscovery Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Lomax and Jeffrey Khan, who is hosting his Fellowship as Andreas C. Dracopoulos Director of the Berman Institute, are exploring the intersections of ethics, neuroscience, and society, including seeking a pathway to responsible creation and use of neural organoids.
For this month’s “Civic Science Sparks With…,” I share my recent exchange with Brooke, Lomax, and Jeff delving into their partnership in the Civic Science Fellows program, what they are learning, what inspires their work, and where they see momentum for culture change.
Elizabeth Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation
Elizabeth Christopherson: How would you describe yourself to the civic science network?
Lomax Boyd: “Bridge builder” captures my enduring interest in experimenting with new approaches that connect science with publics. My position at the Berman Institute of Bioethics has provided an ideal laboratory for exploring how my home discipline of neuroscience raises, but also informs, ethical questions that are central to how people engage with emerging areas of science and technology.
Jeffrey Khan: I’m committed to expanding public-facing work in bioethics, and civic science is part of that. We’re thrilled for the Berman Institute to be engaged in and partnering with the CSF network and the Kavli Foundation to promote work in civic science approaches to bioethics. My own commitment to civic science-related efforts go back to 1998–2002, when I launched and wrote a biweekly 750-word online column for CNN.com called Ethics Matters, focusing on bioethics issues and topics. It was very early for anyone to be producing that sort of bioethics content for popular media, and it provided a glimpse of what more developed websites and social media platforms might make possible. I realized with the first set of metrics that I could reach many thousands of people with each column, far outstripping the reach any sort of scholarly publication could ever achieve.
Given the importance of bioethics issues to the public and to public discourse, I’ve worked to continue to build what we now have labeled our Public Bioethics Program, through which we can continue to develop public-facing approaches to our work, including work inspired by the Civic Science Fellows network.
Brooke Smith: I am the Director of Science and Society at The Kavli Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that advances science for the benefit of humanity. While first and foremost a funder of basic science (in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience), we go beyond scientific research and work to ensure the people, processes, and products of science contribute meaningfully to society. Civic science is an important part of this, which is why The Kavli Foundation was a co-founder of this fellowship and continues to invest in Fellows.
“It has been a goal of mine for a long time to move the bioethics work we do to be more public facing, with more of a focus on both reaching and engaging with the publics (note intentional use of plural) for whom our work is relevant and important. Civic science is one piece of what is becoming a larger programmatic effort in Public Bioethics for the Berman Institute.”– Jeffrey Khan, Andreas C. Dracopoulos Director, Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University
Elizabeth: What inspired your work to build civic science connections?
Lomax: The laboratory–essentially, a physical (and sometime virtual) location where people with diverse expertise work on common problems–inspired me to build civic science connections spanning neuroscience, public engagement, bioethics, and computer science. Only together do we have the necessary expertise to build and experiment with new ideas.
Jeffrey: It has been a goal of mine for a long time to move the bioethics work we do to be more public facing, with more of a focus on both reaching and engaging with the publics (note intentional use of plural) for whom our work is relevant and important. Civic science is one piece of what is becoming a larger programmatic effort in Public Bioethics for the Berman Institute.
Brooke: My career has been built on my attraction to the interesting stuff that happens at the interface of science and society. It’s been an inspiring, entrepreneurial, rewarding—but sometimes frustrating— professional journey. Clear paths exist if you want to become a traditional researcher, but it is harder to navigate your way through professional development and jobs that are “about science” but not at the bench or in the field. It takes a lot of charting one’s own path. But it also means critical components that exist in other fields—funding, graduate programs, internships, paying jobs, sometimes even respect—aren’t mainstream yet. At a time where we clearly want and need science’s relationship with society to be reciprocal and mutually beneficial, I am always championing ways to improve the infrastructure of people and programs that can do this. The 2018 Stanford Social Innovation Review article I co-authored with you and Dietram Scheufele, “The Civic Science Imperative,” discussed this—pointing out the critical need to do civic science, while also noting some of the critical investments that need to be made to do it well.
“The laboratory–essentially, a physical (and sometime virtual) location where people with diverse expertise work on common problems–inspired me to build civic science connections spanning neuroscience, public engagement, bioethics, and computer science. Only together do we have the necessary expertise to build and experiment with new ideas.”– Lomax Boyd, 2021–23 Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics Civic Science Fellow
Elizabeth: Where do you see key challenges and opportunities in civic science efforts and momentum for culture change?
Lomax: There is incredible momentum for civic science within specific communities: scicomm, policy, citizen science, and early career researchers. Yet there is skepticism within the broader scientific community about the exact value of civic science. I frequently encounter the “why” question when engaging with senior scientific colleagues. Why should we divert critical resources, or training, toward civic science initiatives? The challenge and opportunity is demonstrating value to all stakeholders, including basic scientists at the bench, that civic science is worthwhile.
Jeffrey: There’s a long history of skepticism towards academics who spend what is perceived as too much of their efforts working on issues for “popular” audiences, and while that’s changing, I think there are still some communities that need convincing, in some areas of academic science in particular. The opportunities relate to the high levels of interest and the high quality of people committed to civic science approaches and the change they can make.
Brooke: There is so much appetite for this work to be done. And so much appetite to do this work. The number of qualified applicants that are interested in a fellowship opportunity is astounding and inspiring. But, again, it’s frustrating—why don’t we have more positions that support those working at the interface of science and public values? Why do so many expect this work to be done for free, off the side of their desk or other jobs. This is a key challenge in civic science—until we value it, and support the infrastructure that invests in leaders and professionals to thrive in this arena—we won’t fully realize its potential. Those of us funding the Fellows’ work signals the importance and value, but it needs to scale.
Elizabeth: What is something you learned from your partnerships and time together in the Civic Science Fellows program—either from each other or from your sharing work with Fellows and others?
Lomax: Civic science is a burgeoning field without a traditional academic home. There’s no Journal of Civic Science (yet) to stay up-to-date with the latest and most relevant advances in the field. The Civic Science Fellows program has provided a place where I’ve learned about new projects, techniques, datasets, funding opportunities, and potential collaborators.
“[Lomax’s] stories show that what scientists expect the public will think of various topics is actually different than what public concerns actually are, anecdotes to underscore why civic science work needs to be done. Science cannot make assumptions about public values. Finding ways to legitimately understand and meaningfully include those values is imperative.”– Brooke Smith, Director of Science and Society, The Kavli Foundation
Jeffrey: It’s been wonderful to interact a bit with the amazing network of Fellows and to hear their interests, background, and approaches to the issues of civic science. So to answer the question, I learned about the community of those committed to civic science, and I’m very optimistic about the future and the great work they’ll do.
Brooke: I love talking with Lomax to hear what he is learning and doing—I learn so much from him. He’s not just considering public perceptions of organoids, and other neuroscience advances, but also observing what scientists think the public values. His stories show that what scientists expect the public will think of various topics is actually different than what public concerns actually are, anecdotes to underscore why civic science work needs to be done. Science cannot make assumptions about public values. Finding ways to legitimately understand and meaningfully include those values is imperative.
Elizabeth: What are you most excited about in your Civic Science Fellowship/project right now?
Lomax: Many of our ideas are starting to take flight. For example, we’ve started a new collaboration with computer scientists to design systems capable of sustained, scalable, and structured approaches to public engagement with emerging areas of science. These could be useful to museums, civic organizations, nonprofits, or academic scholars. We aim to pilot the project within the year and hope the work could be useful to the broader civic science community.
Jeffrey: We’ve been very fortunate to be able to host Lomax as a Civic Science Fellow, supported by The Kavli Foundation. Lomax has taken a lead on developing new techniques to elicit values of public stakeholder groups around novel and ethically controversial science, work that promises to have an impact not only on the science and policy of neural organoids (Lomax’s project work) but on emerging science and technology more generally. It’s critically important work and we’re very lucky to have had Lomax join our community to pioneer it.
Elizabeth: What’s a civic science aspiration for the future?
Lomax: We need critical infrastructure for sustained civic engagement with science. Knowledge about the public—their attitudes, beliefs, and values—are distributed across a wide range of academic journals and therefore largely inaccessible. Much like the resources/tools that have enabled major advances in fields such as neuroscience, we need more open and structured approaches to understanding and attending to public values, beliefs, and attitudes toward science. We envision future resources like a public bioethics corpus that could provide a means for documenting and understanding the diversity of public perspectives across an ever-expanding range of science topics.
Jeffrey: Making considerations of civic science part of all our research projects, and training the next generations of bioethics researchers, scholars, and educators to include civic science in their work.
“Scientific discovery is rapidly advancing, and one area in particular is neuroscience research. The pace of these advancements is creating a need for accelerating civic science. By so doing, publics have opportunities to learn about early stage research and public values can inform scientific developments and potential applications. The work led by Dr. Lomax Boyd, through our partnership with the Berman Institute of Bioethics and the Kavli Neurodiscovery Institute at Johns Hopkins, is a step towards ensuring public values can be part of shaping discovery to benefit humanity.”– Cynthia M. Friend, President, The Kavli Foundation