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Some practical ways to build public trust with your science

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Science is about more than just running experiments. We researchers know this, but we can often feel out of our element when venturing outside the lab. Like many scientists, I’ve been trained to focus my attention on the practical aspects of science: design of experiments, hypothesis testing, techniques to carry generate and analyze and meaningful data. All of these tasks are very important and should be pursued with our best collective and individual efforts. But it is all too easy to get caught up in the “how” of data and hard facts and lose sight of the “why” of science.

When researchers can’t see this proverbial forest for the trees, it does a disservice to our science and our community. We would all do well to remember that science is a human enterprise and can and should benefit the world around us. Indeed, scientific discoveries have the potential to ameliorate many societal ills. Funders certainly recognize this need to take a wider view, and even require it, such as the Broader Impacts criterion required for any National Science Foundation grant. One practical way to meet this imperative is to extend the research process to include the public, both to determine the needs of those outside of own research communities, and to educate others in the value and purpose of our work. Finding ways to engage our audience as stakeholders in the scientific process will go a long way towards these goals.

But if you’re at all like me, more likely than not, you wait until the last moment to finish the Broader Impacts statement for your proposals. It will be of great benefit for all of us to take the time to do this during the project design phase to appropriately integrate the Broader Impacts into the very fabric of proposals and research plans.

While this task may not seem like rocket science, thankfully several rocket scientists over at NASA have done a great job to pave a path forward for us. NASA scientists and social scientists invited laypeople to a public forum to engage with experts as part of a participatory technology assessment—a tool which explicitly aims to turn the audience into stakeholders. In essence, it makes a layperson a part of the scientific process, by establishing a two-way flow of information, between the expert and members of the general public.

As part of this Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology program (ECAST), a lay audience met with domain experts to discuss several NASA initiatives. Event organizers encouraged small groups of participants and scientists to discuss issues pertaining to deep space travel—the shortlist of topics included systems to detect and redirect asteroids as well as a proposed plan for a mission to Mars. In one session, citizens weighed the risks and rewards of options to prevent an asteroid impact scenario, for instance, including using nuclear blast deflection or deploying a gravity tractor.

After the discussion, participants voted on which course of action to take in several scenarios (varying the threat’s immediacy and scale of devastation). Participants were reluctant to use nuclear weapons except as a last resort, and they favored a kinetic impactor followed by terrestrial civil defense. After voting on their choices, citizens answered surveys about the influence that expert-citizen discussions had on their decision-making process. The researchers found the expert moderators provided a solid foundation and background information for deliberations and that discussion with peers deeply influenced participants’ decision-making. But perhaps most importantly, at the conclusion of the forum, participants felt as though their voices were heard, and were relevant for space and science policy makers.

The ECAST pilot demonstrates that it’s entirely possible to humanize the scientific enterprise, even at unfathomable celestial scales, through two-way communication and dialogue. In other fields, scientists can do more than just invite discussion—they can invite participation on the study and data collection itself—for example, through data crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives like Zooniverse. This sort of amateur research corps can yield incredible results. Amateur astronomer Victor Buso serendipitiously captured the birth of a supernova while testing a new camera for his telescope. (Buso even managed to get a Nature publication by collaborating with the experts he contacted about his discovery!) Modern technology has made this collaborative, citizen science work much easier in the last five years, with vastly simplified distribution of software, media, and visualization tools across a range of fields.

Regardless of the tools or specific fields in question, when we find ways to turn our research into a quest to find solutions to relevant and challenging problems—and even include the public in the discussion, development, and data capture of such work—we boost our own morale and strengthen the motivations of both expert and non-expert alike. This approach to scientific research and science engagement will help you complete your next NSF proposal, but also create avenues of trust with the general public by demystifying the scientific process. Even a simple connection to the mundane and routine can help make astronomical topics such as gravitational waves and black holes conceptually accessible to mechanics, accountants, and cashiers, who all stand to benefit equally from the knowledge and understanding gained from the depths of the universe. And that push to advance the bounds of human knowledge to “infinity and beyond” —together—will serve NASA astronauts and terrestrial inhabitants alike.

More details about the ECAST program can be found in the report by (David Tomblin et al.) here.

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