Crises of Legitimacy of Science –What can be done?

Crises of Legitimacy of Science –What can be done?

Lou Swanson, Emeritus Vice President of Engagement, Colorado State University

Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus, Outreach and Engagement, Oregon State University

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

A lot can be done and is being done. 

In our previous blog we underscore the self-evident importance of science in the US.  Science has become a required knowledge creating and disseminating force in the economy, public and personal healthcare and general social well-being, our personal lives.  21st century societies depend upon the products of scientific inquiry. 

Science and the institutions that advance the sciences are national cultural imperatives.  

Our concern here is twofold: 1) do crises of legitimacy of science include crises of legitimacy for research universities? if so, 2) how can universities champion their research and other creative activity off-campus.  This begs the question of whether we are taking advantage of current university outreach/engagement programs to convey the ways in which universities, every day, connect citizens with science in meaningful, understandable, and user-friendly ways.

University medical schools’ translational science programs collaboratively bring frontline medical research to communities, particularly at-risk low-income communities.

Land Grant university Extension agents/educators have been embedded in America’s urban and rural communities for more than a century, applying existing knowledge to local and individual needs, and, in turn, bringing public/individual priorities to these public universities.

Universities have records of science engagement with their publics.  But more must relentlessly be done to sustainably convey the principles and logical processes of scientific inquiry.   

Science must be accessible to everyone if it is to be broadly valued and useful in public and personal decision-making processes.   And, scientific engagement best engages the public when it acknowledges other explanations of the public’s understanding of and beliefs about natural and social phenomena.

Two Land Grant University Extension delivery platforms stand out as examples to be built upon and expanded — citizen science and youth development 4-H STEM.  Both advance university missions to provide evidence-based knowledge through direct collaboration with their communities.     

These are premier starting points for addressing threats posed by efforts to delegitimate science.

STEM and citizen science programs highlight the many ways scientific generated knowledge is accessible and applicable for daily problem solving and decision making.  Both platforms can deflect anti-science social media through the provision of sustained real-world experiences — without direct and usually futile confrontations.

STEM youth development programs advance the techniques and culture of rational inquiry for young citizens who become practitioners and consumers of science.  Citizen science, from youth programs to adult participation in scientific research and application, connects the power of scientific inquiry with everyday experiences.

Examples of both platforms flourish at America’s public universities.  Colorado State University’s Community Collaborative Rain Hail Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is a sterling example.  This citizen science program was created in the wake of the catastrophic 1997 flood in Fort Collins, CO to engage the public in systematically collecting metrological data – citizens collecting data in their yards.  Today, this network has thousands of citizens collecting data across the US.  These data are used by NOAA and other agencies in their weather models https://www.cocorahs.org/.  CoCoRaHS creates and disseminates data that improve weather forecasts and bring the science of meteorology to citizens of all ages and places.

These challenges are not new.  What is new is a renewed intensity of political interest groups discrediting science, as an interest group itself.   This is not a crippling condition, nor is science necessarily vulnerable to the currents of political polarization.

In a period of populist pushback (by both the right and left), the appearance of ‘our truth trumps your truth’ is a replay of science’s detractors’ claims to legitimacy – resorting to ‘authority’ rather than their record and collaborative engagement.

How can higher education relegitimate scientific and humanities institutions whose self-evident authority has eroded as social media disinformation accelerates?  Perhaps, we overestimated science’s prior value among our diverse publics, but we don’t think so.   

We have the tools to reimagine the astonishing power of scientific enterprise to create new knowledge and apply existing knowledge.  We have a long history of recognizing and working with citizens in the contexts of their own perceptions of knowledge – including knowledge generated over generations of astute observation.

Transdisciplinary issues such as climate change, pandemic policies, and environmental sustainability (as well as a host of others) brings the scientific enterprise into direct contact with the messy worlds of individual values/preferences and powerful social movements.  Let’s not duck and cover in response to political threats.  We have the tools and the institutional cultures to engage our publics where and as they are.

Universities have a responsibility to advance science as a highly reasoned and publicly reviewed knowledge platform.  True to the ground rules of science, universities have a responsibility to honestly/objectively engage their publics on the ways this knowledge is created and to responsibly engage in programs that inform complex and value-driven decisions. 

University-wide engagement, in concert with university teaching and research, is a primary and ethical means for advancing the principles and products of science while fully understanding and embracing the complex social, economic and political worlds within which all of us live.

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