The Science of Improving How the Public Interacts with Science

The term “civic science” encompasses many things: science advocacy, public engagement, knowledge co-creation, science communications, and outreach. Scientific societies, such as ASCB, practice many activities that qualify as civic science. But how can we find out if what we are doing is working? And what does “working” really mean for the people we reach out to? 

Rose Hendricks is the program director for the Society Civic Science initiative based at ASCB. She is the co-PI on a research project called “Assessing How Americans Want to Participate in Science,” a research study to better understand and catalog how Americans—especially members of underrepresented and marginalized communities—want to engage with science.

“For example, what topics are members of the public most interested in learning about? What kinds of things would motivate them to contribute to a scientific study in their community, participate in discussions about the policy implications of research, or watch a documentary on a new science topic?” Hendricks said. 

The study also aims to identify the barriers members of the public might encounter when attempting to participate in science. The data collected will help academia, nonprofits, industry, government, and philanthropies optimize the impact of their STEM-based community engagement strategies and activities.

“There’s quite a bit of research about Americans’ public opinions about science but not really any research asking the question what role do Americans want to have in science,” Hendricks said. “For example, do they want to have a role in participating in clinical trials, or would they like to have a role in helping shaping directions of what research questions are being prioritized?”

Hendricks used COVID-19 as an example. “Do members of the public want to be involved in conversations about how we apply new evidence—for example, on how transmissible new variants might be—to policies on a federal or local scale?” she added. “The scarcity of data in this area remains a major obstacle to the development of effective engagement programs that aim to strengthen the bidirectional relationship between science and society.” 

The “Assessing How Americans Want to Participate in Science” research study is co-led by the Association of Science and Technology Centers and Museums (ASTC) and ScienceCounts, with its executive director Christopher Volpe serving as the other co-PI on the project. Hendricks explained that the research study will address three fundamental questions: 

  • How do people in the United States want to participate in science-related activities? 
  • How do people want to be involved in discussions about scientific research priorities and ethical implications?
  • What are the specific areas where people want to engage with science and what are the barriers to participation, especially for members of marginalized communities? 

The study involves both qualitative and qualitative approaches. The qualitative part, which is wrapping up, included interviews through focus groups. The study will continue with a quantitative national survey conducted with the administrative assistance of Edge Research, a professional market research firm. Census data will be used to ensure that the sample for the survey reflects the general American public on a range of demographic variables, and the study will include about 2,600 Americans, Hendricks said. Initially, data will be analyzed to gain a better understanding of the overall opinions of the country as a whole. Then the researchers will drill down to examine the ways that perspectives differ among people from different demographic groups, including age, geography, political learning, and race or ethnicity. 

“We are especially prioritizing Americans who identify as Black or Hispanic because in many cases the scientific enterprise has excluded them,” she said. “We want to truly understand how these communities feel, alongside the sentiments of the country as a whole.”

Hendricks said the quantitative phase of the study is just beginning. Surveying started before Thanksgiving. To listen to an interview with Rose Hendricks and learn more about the Society Civic Science Initiative, listen to the Pathways Podcast (https://bit.ly/3CHa0V7). 

Funded by the Kavli Foundation, the Society Civic Science Initiative involves staff from several leading entities along with ASCB. These include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and Research America. To see a list of all participants in the Society Civic Science Initiative, go to www.societycivicscience.org/partners

About the Author:


Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.