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Identifying Topics and Framing Issues

The first step in the Dialogue & Deliberation process is identifying what topic your effort will focus on. There may be some constraints, based on existing partnerships and the skills and resources available, but ultimately the topic should be influenced as much as possible by the community. Planning a successful initiative starts with knowledge of a community’s priorities, a nuanced understanding of the community’s relationship with the topic, and a clear, unbiased, and compelling framing of the issue.

What Should My Topic Be?

Watch the video below to hear how ASTC Community Science Dialogue & Deliberation Fellows Kristan Uhlenbrock (Denver Museum of Nature & Science) and Claudia Martinez Gray (International Museum of Art & Science) identified topics for their events.

Click the topics below to learn more.

A good Dialogue & Deliberation topic is one that is generally agreed to be of concern within the community, but the nature of the issue, or the way to respond to it, is in dispute. The topic should be framed as a question that the Dialogue & Deliberation effort seeks to answer (or at least begins to answer). Dialogue & Deliberation is not designed to address technical questions like, “How should we build this bridge?” Rather, it is designed to address questions best answered by multiple people who have different roles in the community. One way of developing a question is to follow the format: “What should we do?”

  • What – there are multiple options available, for which there are different trade-offs
  • Should – there is a values judgement to be made, not a single clear correct answer
  • We – the problem and the solution are collective in nature
  • Do – there is an action to be taken and the information shared during the process can influence which action is chosen

Here are a few example questions using the “What should we do?” format:

  • “How should we address increasing temperatures in our community?”
  • “How can we reduce the spread of scientific misinformation in our social media networks?”
  • “How can we address health disparities in our community?”

Learn more about the qualities that make a good Dialogue & Deliberation topic: Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums (Kettering Foundation)

Identifying compelling Dialogue & Deliberation topics  requires deep understanding of the community you wish to work with. As described previously, ASTC defines “communities” broadly—as connected or organized groups of people who share a common geography, jurisdiction, set of characteristics, interests, or goals—not just a particular racial or ethnic group or zip code. After defining the community, you may want to consider defining sub-groups that comprise it, such as cultural groups, neighborhoods, and faith communities. Additionally, it may be helpful to identify major stakeholders and agents of change, like community-based organizations and policymakers that can ultimately help channel  recommendations into action.

Learn more about how to identify important community stakeholders: Using a Stakeholder Analysis to Identify Key Local Actors (Grassroots Collective)

Once the community and its major stakeholders are identified, Dialogue & Deliberation practitioners are well-positioned to start learning about the community’s priorities. This can happen through informal conversations, structured conversations, online surveys, interviews, ballot boxes, or many other ways depending on what is best suited to the community and topic at hand. Informal visits to places like local businesses and community centers can be essential networking and community-building efforts, while joining existing community events, such as potlucks, sporting events, and holiday celebrations, may be ideal opportunities to reach and engage a broad cross section of the community. Working closely with stakeholders and community partners can help ensure all parts of the community are reached through these efforts.

Learn more about how to determine community priorities: Public Participation Guide: Situation Assessments (US Environmental Protection Agency)

There are some specific considerations to acknowledge when framing Dialogue & Deliberation topics related to science. Working in equitable partnership means, in part, framing the topic in a way that is compelling to the community—which may not be the same framing that is compelling to scientists and science engagement professionals! This may mean making a global issue more locally relevant, focusing more on social impacts and less on scientific ones, or clarifying misconceptions about the issue and potential ways to address it. For example, in developing a Dialogue & Deliberation effort about climate change, it might be best to focus on a specific repercussion relevant to the community, such as increased flooding. The social impacts of this flooding might be perceived differently across the community; some people may be most concerned about the impact on native plants, others may fear for the safety of their homes, and some may wonder about effects on tourism revenue. Community members may have been misinformed and believe the only solution is to make costly and undesirable changes to their neighborhoods. It is vital to understand the different ways the community conceptualizes problems and solutions so that you can build appropriate framing materials to prepare them for the Dialogue & Deliberation process.

Learn more about framing scientific issues in an inclusive manner: Inclusive Science Communication Starter Kit (National Science Foundation)