Building civic capacity for engagement in science and technology

In a world where many citizens do not even vote, how can we encourage them to engage in policy making related to science and technology.  Below is a summary of the publication we will be summarizing this month at Science Communication Journal Club.  We will update this summary with highlights from the chat.

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Citation: Selin, C.  K. C. Rawlings, K. de-Ridder-Vignone, J. Sadowski, C. Altamirano Allende, G. Gano, S. Davies and D. Guston. 2016. “Experiments in Engagement: Designing PEST for Capacity Building.” Public Understanding of Science. 1-16.


This study broadly examines how to build civic capacity for engagement in science and technology. The goal of the study is to identify key programmatic design principles that increase civic capacity for engagement.


What is Civic Capacity Building?

Civic capacity building is a process by which citizens learn the skills necessary to participate in political and public life. Key capacities necessary for engagement can be grouped into three broad categories:


  1. Intrapersonal capacities: A sense of self and understanding of one’s own identity in relation to others (e.g., preferences; strengths; biases; abilities), which may affect the quality and substance of public engagement.
  2. Political capacities: The extent to which one understands and can act upon political or public matters.
  3. Civic capacities: The skills necessary for public engagement (e.g., communication; critical thinking; collective decision-making; efficacy). Civic capacities increase the likelihood that people constructively and actively participate in public engagement.



A pilot engagement exercise was conducted using the Futurecape City Tours program, led through the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. Sixteen participants were recruited and the exercise occurred in four phases over a period of three months in Phoenix, Arizona. The first session was an orientation that allowed participants to discuss their questions and interests around nanotechnology and the urban environment. Taking participants’ interests in to consideration, the second session was a walking tour of the city, during which participants were asked to write reflections and take photos to document, observe, question, and point out places where they saw the 1) past persisting, 2) present embodied, and 3) future emerging. During the third session, participants used a selection of their photos to engage in deliberative exercises, where they 1) negotiated the past, 2) articulated the present, and 3) envisioned the futures of their city.



Qualitative assessments (e.g., participant evaluation surveys; informal interviews) showed early evidence of capacity building with positive outcomes in intrapersonal, political, and civic capacities. The following design principles for building civic capacity were also identified:

  1. Citizen-set agendas create a sense of empowerment, relevance, and ownership in the engagement process for all participants in an inclusive manner.
  2. Social constructivist framing of technology allows participants to think about the social dimensions of technology, rather than considering the pros and cons of specific applications.
  3. Integration of expertise allows participants to bring their own expertise/experiences into interactions with experts in ways that support a more conversational style of discourse, rather than establishing a clear layperson-expert divide (e.g., lecture; panels).
  4. Material deliberation allows material (e.g., objects; places) and affective (e.g., love; fear) knowledge to be regarded as valid and valuable forms of deliberation and reflection, in contrast to traditional models of deliberation that emphasize reasoned arguments.
  5. Tempered futures highlight the limitations of shaping the future by acknowledging that the future already contains legislation, technologies, people, and infrastructure. Additionally, introducing time as a variable into the discussion can help participants better understand the challenges for envisioning and making change in the future.


See Table 1 for a summary of the design principles in practice.


Why Capacity for Public Engagement in Science Matters

Public engagement in science requires citizens to have the necessary skills to participate effectively in deliberation about science and science policy.


Citizen engagement in science can provide:

  1. increased legitimacy and accountability of governmental institutions
  2. empowered communities and increased social cohesion.
  3. more efficient and effective public services and policies.
  4. personal benefits to participants.


This study provides several contributions to the science communication and public engagement literature. First, many scholars have assumed a direct relationship between public engagement and scientific decision-making/science policy. However, this view ignores the importance of informal dialogues, which is how citizens may more normally engage in science. Second, engagement in science may not only be affected by values of reason and expertise, but also affective and behavioral notions. Third, treating the public as a “blank slate” and regarding public opinion as stable and permanent overlooks the effects of engagement activity design, the participants, and their views for building public engagement and changing opinions.

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