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Civic Engagement and Policy Making

Engaging communities in making decisions that impact society—such as determining how to address environmental risks in a community—can improve both the quality and legitimacy of any decisions, as well as the capacity of all stakeholders to address the current issues and build capacity for future challenges1, 2. Community science can be an approach for civic engagement and collective decision making that builds communities’ capacity to conduct and shape the research that informs and influences governance and policy making3, 4. In these types of community science projects, research is an immediate product—like citizen science projects—but with the primary purpose of using that research as an input for collective action and making policy and governance decisions to advance communities’ goals5, 6, 7.

Who participates and what form that participation takes can vary depending on the particular issue and form of engagement and governance that communities choose5. In all cases, however, community science is driven by communities, not by researchers or policymakers8. The partnerships created among communities, researchers, and policymakers are characterized by shared, equal, or equitable control.

For example, community members in Flint, Michigan, worked with scientists, medical professionals, and engineers to uncover and understand the extent of toxic lead exposure in their water supply after a change in the city’s water treatment system9. While city officials insisted that Flint’s water met Federal standards, concerned citizens organized to collect thousands of samples for analysis, gathering evidence to support their claims. Community members set the policy agenda by using their collective data to spotlight health hazards requiring immediate action.

Community science can also involve many different communities and stakeholders coming together to decide how they collectively wish to govern. For example, The Wild Center, a natural history museum in Tupper Lake, New York, facilitates a Youth Climate Program, through which high school students develop climate action plans for their schools and communities after engaging in climate change science and solutions exercises. In addition to in-person workshops and summits, The Wild Center shares a wide range of resources to support students in pursuing their chosen solutions, including planning tools to help organize related events in their local communities and program evaluations to help youth improve on their practice and share findings with their participants.

1U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Principles of Community Engagement (Second Edition)” (Clinical and Translational Science Awards Consortium’s Community Engagement Key Function Committee, June 2011).

2Thomas Dietz and Paul C. Stern, Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2008).

3Ramya Chari et al., “The Promise of Community Citizen Science,” 2017.

4Shannon Dosemagen, “Exploring the Roots: The Evolution of Civic and Community Science,” April 14, 2020.

5Jennifer L. Shirk et al., “Public Participation in Scientific Research: A Framework for Deliberate Design,” Ecology and Society 17, no. 2 (2012).

6Kerry Strand et al., “Principles of Best Practice for Community-Based Research,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 9, no. 2 (2003): 5–15.

7Marie-Claude Tremblay et al., “Can We Build on Social Movement Theories to Develop and Improve Community-Based Participatory Research? A Framework Synthesis Review,” American Journal of Community Psychology 59, no. 3-4 (April 2017): pp. 333-362.

8Anthony Charles et al., “Community Science: A Typology and Its Implications for Governance of Social-Ecological Systems,” Environmental Science & Policy 106 (2020): pp. 77-86.

9Mark Peplow, “The Flint Water Crisis: How Citizen Scientists Exposed Poisonous Politics,” Nature 559, no. 7713 (July 6, 2018): p. 180.