Citizen Scientists: If Congress builds it, will you come?

Happy Friday! 

Check out this Citizen Science article I wrote for Science Progress. In it, I propose that Congress open an Office of Technology Assessment to provide balanced science policy advice. Not an original idea. Lots of folks are trying to make this happen and, by and large, scientists give the idea two big thumbs up.

However, there’s a twist in my pitch and it’s crinkling some pocket protectors.  I’m calling on Congress to open the Office with a mechanism for public participation.  Why?  So you and I can weigh in on some critical policy issues such as stem cell research, voting technology, engineered foods, alternative fuels, etc.   

Who would be against that? Plenty of people. Know why? Because many scientists think we are big dummies. And, when it comes to science, we keep proving them right. See here.

But a good chunk of what shapes science policy depends on economics, personal values, and other factors outside the boundaries of pure science. And that’s one reason why we should be invited to weigh in. Another is this: it’s been demonstrated that when given the opportunity, “average” citizens, untrained in the sciences, are able to handily grasp relevant science facts as well as policy implications and use them to help shape important science policy matters.

This might be new news to some but I bet it’s not surprising to the Citizen Scientists out there who are volunteering in droves to help scientists with research. You people are incredible and earning quite a bit of respect from the science community. In fact, in this Science Progress article, I propose having you work with Congress and scientists to shape science policy. Easier pill to swallow for most and, frankly, you’ve earned the right to be there.

The rest of us ought to want a say, too. Congress and scientists are determining our future and spending our money in the process. We don’t need veto power. We don’t need to question the experts on scientific facts but we do have opinions that matter, don’t we? To be fair, we can and should do a better job of staying informed on science issues to earn our place at the table. And, we’ve got some incredible scientists who are eager to help us so we can contribute more fully to the democratic process. More on that later.

This question is for you. If Congress opens an OTA with citizen inclusion, will you answer the call to participate?

  • http://bartacus.blogspot.com Bart L

    As I note on my blog (using NASA as an example), it’s not just a matter of doing exciting, complicated things. Admittedly, the U.S. population could go a long way toward educating itself about scientific issues, BUT the scientific and technical communities need to do a better job of explaining what they’re doing and of doing so in an engaging, non-condescending way.

    The science community might frown on “science popularizers” like Carl Sagan or Bill Nye the Science Guy, but heck, at least they have tried to get the public engaged.

    Part of the problem is cultural, I think. “There’s no room for excitement in engineering. If you’ve got excitement, it’s because something’s gone wrong on the job!” Well, maybe. But there’s also the thrill of discovering, designing, or accomplishing great and mysterious things. How the heck else do you explain the success of forensic science, for gosh sakes? We’ve got three CSIs, “Bones,” and other programs featuring crime scene investigations and getting kids interested in science. That isn’t an accident. Other disciplines, such as the space program, could benefit from such dramas. And if more people are engaged by such dramas, they just might pay some more attention to “the real thing.”

  • http://bartacus.blogspot.com Bart L

    As I note on my blog (using NASA as an example), it’s not just a matter of doing exciting, complicated things. Admittedly, the U.S. population could go a long way toward educating itself about scientific issues, BUT the scientific and technical communities need to do a better job of explaining what they’re doing and of doing so in an engaging, non-condescending way.

    The science community might frown on “science popularizers” like Carl Sagan or Bill Nye the Science Guy, but heck, at least they have tried to get the public engaged.

    Part of the problem is cultural, I think. “There’s no room for excitement in engineering. If you’ve got excitement, it’s because something’s gone wrong on the job!” Well, maybe. But there’s also the thrill of discovering, designing, or accomplishing great and mysterious things. How the heck else do you explain the success of forensic science, for gosh sakes? We’ve got three CSIs, “Bones,” and other programs featuring crime scene investigations and getting kids interested in science. That isn’t an accident. Other disciplines, such as the space program, could benefit from such dramas. And if more people are engaged by such dramas, they just might pay some more attention to “the real thing.”

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  • Bill Lands

    You cite OTA ideas in the context of following the thoughts of the LOKA program in Denmark. That seems a sure way to smother public participation in science – - and public participation in progress.

    The LOKA website favors ‘consensus conferences’. It says, “The purpose of focusing on points of agreement is not to create or force a consensus, but to instead reveal what points of agreement emerge after everday folks have had an opportunity to learn and deliberate together. The philosophy of the consensus conference is that the consensus report should be a sound indicator of what technological changes are OK with society, because it reflects points of agreement freely determined by individuals who have deliberated together, and whose primary concern is the general good. Good sociology (which really depend on empathy and consensus), but not good science – (which does not really depend on consensus).

    Keep on cheerleading for public science – - not political science!

  • Bill Lands

    You cite OTA ideas in the context of following the thoughts of the LOKA program in Denmark. That seems a sure way to smother public participation in science – - and public participation in progress.

    The LOKA website favors ‘consensus conferences’. It says, “The purpose of focusing on points of agreement is not to create or force a consensus, but to instead reveal what points of agreement emerge after everday folks have had an opportunity to learn and deliberate together. The philosophy of the consensus conference is that the consensus report should be a sound indicator of what technological changes are OK with society, because it reflects points of agreement freely determined by individuals who have deliberated together, and whose primary concern is the general good. Good sociology (which really depend on empathy and consensus), but not good science – (which does not really depend on consensus).

    Keep on cheerleading for public science – - not political science!

  • http://www.sciencecheerleader.com Darlene

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bill. (Hey, this IS public science! :) ) Couple of questions: help me understand why something like a consensus conference would smother public participation in science? I agree that science research needs to be handled exclusively by “the experts,” but the science policies set forth around them should include “good sociology” as you put it (I like that!). What if I had said something like “for every opportunity a lobbyist has to influence science policy decisions, there should be an equal opportunity given to an ‘average’ citizen.” Why should scientists, Congress and lobbyist determine what is best for you and for me on the most critical issues? I’m not saying we should butt our noses in to every legislative issue but there are BIG ones that warrant more inclusion. An OTA could help determine what those issues are and how best to include citizens in meaningful dialogue. I’m not solely advocating consensus-driven approaches. That may be one approach to a particular type of science policy issue. Frankly, if our wonderful and incredibly fragmented country were able to reach a consensus on anything, I’d begin to wonder if we were all getting a little too much prozac in our drinking water! Do you mind if I ask you if you are a scientist or academic? I ask because, in general, your response is fairly consistent with those fields. And thanks again for posting this, Bill!

  • http://www.sciencecheerleader.com Darlene

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bill. (Hey, this IS public science! :) ) Couple of questions: help me understand why something like a consensus conference would smother public participation in science? I agree that science research needs to be handled exclusively by “the experts,” but the science policies set forth around them should include “good sociology” as you put it (I like that!). What if I had said something like “for every opportunity a lobbyist has to influence science policy decisions, there should be an equal opportunity given to an ‘average’ citizen.” Why should scientists, Congress and lobbyist determine what is best for you and for me on the most critical issues? I’m not saying we should butt our noses in to every legislative issue but there are BIG ones that warrant more inclusion. An OTA could help determine what those issues are and how best to include citizens in meaningful dialogue. I’m not solely advocating consensus-driven approaches. That may be one approach to a particular type of science policy issue. Frankly, if our wonderful and incredibly fragmented country were able to reach a consensus on anything, I’d begin to wonder if we were all getting a little too much prozac in our drinking water! Do you mind if I ask you if you are a scientist or academic? I ask because, in general, your response is fairly consistent with those fields. And thanks again for posting this, Bill!

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