Tuesday, August 22, 2017

By Ryan Meyer, CSPO at ASU, reporting from the Exemplar Panels

Shirley: “it’s quite bizarre, scary, and exciting to be an academic also doing advocacy and on the ground. I won’t use the word important because that has a lameness to it, but you really feel that you are of the world.

Margaret: “people tell me that I am the fed who talks the most clearly to them and still has her job.”

Ramesh: “there’s a need for us to reconnect with science and scientists, but it’s hard to say how to do that, and what kinds of scientists we should connect with… Have we stopped producing relevant scientists?”

When your research is driven by user needs and the realities of problems on the ground, things get complicated. This exemplar session gave us a chance to consider some of the nuanced issues that emerge when you are, as Shirley put it, “not kidding around about being applied.” Our panelists covered a good range: international, national, local; NGO, federal, university. From their anecdotes and observations, we learned about many challenges associated with user-driven science. For example:

  • Taking responsibility for helping with a problem confers… well… considerable responsibility! For Shirley this can be quite overwhelming in the context of New Orleans, where they have witnessed two of the nation’s largest environmental catastrophes in the last five years.
  • Working in communities and on boundaries between organizations can raise tricky issues related to competing values, missions, and interests. Both Margaret and Shirley have struggled with this. Should a university support a faculty member volunteering their time in the community? Should that be part of reward systems?
  • Focusing on a local problem can have an isolating effect for scientists, when much can be learned from sharing best practices from different regions and localities. Does focusing on local problems

We also confronted some tensions or paradoxes. For example:

  • Shirley recalled and empathized with Carl’s statement from the morning session: “science has caused us to lose the sense of being in the world.” This seems a bit weird, when we think of science as a pursuit of knowledge about the world. But it’s also a problem when you want that science to do work in the world; to be practical, agile, and reflexive.
  • When people become experts on a particular thing, they often become more elitist, while less adaptable and open-minded. In other words, the drive to be an expert works against the kinds of qualities that help in working across boundaries, and with potential users.

Listening to this panel, I found myself coming back to some key provocative questions that have emerged repeatedly in the last two days:

  • Do we need different cateogries of science? Of scientists?
  • How can we mingle our broad philosophical questions about social progress and advancing knowledge with immediate and practical needs that deserve an effective science and technology policy enterprise?

I guess we have another day to figure it all out!

Further CSPO reading:

Usable Science: a Handbook for Science Policy Decision Makers

Climate Science Policy in the Regional Integrated Science and Assessment (RISA) Program


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