Civic Science Sparks With…Sigma Xi
September 28, 2022
What brings each of us into the civic science community?
We hear the urgency of sparking culture change—the need to “think differently about how science relates to everything we care about,” in the words of resource partner Kelley Gulley. We hear eagerness to act collectively and more effectively, recognizing the plurality of values different people and communities bring to civic science, alongside areas of connection.
We hear motivations that emphasize commitments to science and evidence; inclusion, justice, and humility; curiosity and collaboration; and keeping an open mind to learning to accelerate change.
We know that our view is incomplete. There are others not yet in the picture. And our language and ideas will continue to evolve as our perspectives broaden.
At the beginning of the year, several partners began a series of conversations to initiate a Civic Science Values Project, to engage around values as a dynamic, co-created process. This summer, Fellows and partners gathered for a Civic Science Values Lab—an opportunity to experiment with different approaches for group conversations about community values. With sparks from Sigma Xi Civic Science Fellow Andrew George and Sigma Xi Executive Director Jamie Vernon, our collective insights are growing.
With more ahead, what draws you to the work of strengthening connections between science, diverse communities, and our shared civic life?
Elizabeth Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation
Elizabeth Christopherson: How would you describe yourself to the civic science network?
Jamie Vernon: For the past five years, I’ve served as the CEO and executive director of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society, an organization dedicated to scientific integrity and trust. I arrived at this position after nearly a decade of involvement in science communication and policy. My work in these fields has been shaped by the theory that civically engaged scientists can increase and improve the use of scientific evidence in decision making. I’d like to think that my work has advanced these goals.
Andrew George: I would describe myself as an unshakable optimist with a tenacity for seeking out bigger and bigger challenges.
“My inspiration comes from the fact that the solutions we need can only come from authentic partnerships across society.”-Andrew George, 2021-23 Sigma Xi Civic Science Fellow
Elizabeth: What inspired your work to build civic science connections? And work on civic science values?
Jamie: When I started exploring areas outside the research laboratory, the term “civic science” was not widely used. My colleagues and I were motivated by a mission to help society by making science more understandable and accessible. Growing awareness of the weaknesses of the deficit model approach introduced me to the community of researchers studying the science of science communication. By pursuing the ever-expanding network of individuals and organizations interested in these topics, I organically cultivated a community of folks who share a passion for what we now call civic science. The growth of this community naturally led to an interest in understanding the values that bring us together, which resulted in our effort to capture and communicate those values to an even broader community.
Andrew: My inspiration comes from the fact that the solutions we need can only come from authentic partnerships across society. This community aligns well with my preference to learn or connect by doing or being in action together. My interest in the collective actions that we take is what drove my work on the values project as a person’s or group’s collective actions are the measure of what they value. Additionally, by articulating the values we share as a community we will be able to grow and welcome others into this movement.
Elizabeth: Where do you see a few key opportunities for civic science culture change?
Jamie: The low-hanging fruit obviously exists within the academic scientific community. I believe the mere concept that a scientific community is distinct from the broader public is erroneous. We speak so often about “connecting science to the public” or “building bridges.” The need for such initiatives is artificially driven by how academic scientists have operated during recent decades. A healthy culture change would strip away the barriers between scientists and the general public such that research priorities are closely aligned with the needs and interests of our communities. A successful outcome would be when science, through its processes and products, is synonymous with the values of the civic science community.
Andrew: Shift the power imbalances in science. As a collective we have the opportunity to create a culture of scientific inquiry driven by the needs of communities.
Wholistic training. Supporting paid internships for students to explore projects outside of academia. Increasing science communication training across all graduate programs.
Reproducibility. A re-think of the publishing process to prioritize smaller publications and provide incentives for reproducing findings. Incentives could include small financial bounties for reproducing specific experiments or a mechanism for adding authorship to publications based on an individual’s or lab’s ability to reproduce findings.
Societal trust. To build trust requires dialogue and sustained relationships. This means that more emphasis needs to be placed on supporting scientists to become civically engaged as well as creating the infrastructure for bringing the public into science from the beginning as a partner in coming up with the questions that are pursued.
Distributed science. With the advancement of blockchain, the meta verse, cryptocurrencies, and other tools there is a revolution on the horizon for expanding who can invest and participate in science.
“My civic science aspiration is for public trust in science to be restored to the levels observed in the 1960s, when space exploration and vaccines instilled the promise of science to solve our greatest challenges. Science has an even more important role to play today, and successful execution of the civic science vision could bring peace, progress, and cooperation to our society at a time when it is dearly needed.”-Jamie Vernon, Executive Director & CEO, Sigma Xi and Publisher, American Scientist
Elizabeth: What is something you learned from your partnerships/time together in the Civic Science Fellows program?
Jamie Vernon: As the director of a host organization and a contributor to the Civic Science Values Project, I’ve learned that the Civic Science Fellows program offers tremendous opportunities for scientists who are seeking to advance science to a more civically engaged endeavor. The talent and expertise within the Fellows program are unrivaled and promise to change scientific culture. I applaud the Rita Allen Foundation and all the funding partners for their investment in this important initiative.
Andrew George: The opportunity to learn from and grow with a cohort of amazingly talented fellows is extraordinary. We are a small but mighty group that has so much potential to change the culture and practice of science.
Elizabeth: You’ve engaged in much work around building teams–and the importance of intentionally doing so. What might the civic science network of diverse partners learn from your experiences and expertise?
Jamie Vernon: Sigma Xi has a history of thinking and leading on issues related to interdisciplinary research. We’ve published about the evolution of team science and the limitations of the “lone researcher” model. Our members have helped launch a community focused on the science of team science. The lessons of this new field are not lost on the civic science network; however, it’s worth reiterating the value of diverse, interdisciplinary teams and the role they can play in advancing science.
Elizabeth: What are you most excited about in your Civic Science Fellowship right now? You’ve a great interest in public policy and engagement. What kind of impact are you hoping your project might have to influence public policy and the way the public participates?
Andrew George: We recently hosted a four-day science policy bootcamp to train scientists on how to engage with the policy process. As part of the training we experimented with running a Science Policy Hack-a-thon that challenged participants to solve challenges North Carolina agencies were facing. It was truly inspiring to see what the teams were able to come up with in only six hours!
We are hoping this project will expand who is able to influence public policy by demystifying the process and supporting people in taking action on issues they are passionate about.
Elizabeth: What’s a civic science aspiration for the future?
Andrew George: As a new father, I am constantly asking myself how I can create a better future for my daughter to grow into. I aspire that she sees a world where science is a beautiful thread in the fabric of society that she is welcomed and encouraged to weave it into anything she can imagine.
Jamie Vernon: My civic science aspiration is for public trust in science to be restored to the levels observed in the 1960s, when space exploration and vaccines instilled the promise of science to solve our greatest challenges. Science has an even more important role to play today, and successful execution of the civic science vision could bring peace, progress, and cooperation to our society at a time when it is dearly needed.