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Linda Silka is a professor emerita in the School of Economics and a senior fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
An exciting shift in science is on its way. Have you heard the terms “citizen science” and “community science”? Together they refer to important emerging practices in science whereby people immersed in a topic and researchers who study the topic come together. Doing so has been found to increase the relevance of the targeted research and increase the capacity for the topic to be studied in ways that can make a difference. The research does not just sit on the shelf. This “sitting on the shelf” has been called “the loading dock problem.”
The loading dock problem is where, as scientists, we do research by ourselves just assuming that someone will be there to pick up the findings and apply them. Too often we investigate the wrong problem or investigate in ways that people are unable to use. So, how do we solve problems? How do we collect data? And who is the “we”?
It was a surprise and fun to have an article in a key publication outlet of the American Psychological Association — the Monitor on Psychology — lead off with my analysis of solving the wrong problems if we don’t engage in community science. All kinds of assumptions are made: Here’s a paragraph from the article about our wakeup call that we needed to do science differently to come up with solutions that work: “When a federally funded task force of community health providers and cross-disciplinary researchers in Lowell, Massachusetts, was tasked with eradicating bedbugs from a low-income housing community, one provider had a simple solution: sealed mattress covers. But Linda Silka, PhD, a social and community psychologist with the group, organized a focus group with residents — and soon found a problem with the task force’s plan. Most residents in the building did not even own mattresses. ‘We can use our research to come up with wonderful solutions, but if they don’t work for these people in this context, we’ve solved the wrong problem,’ said Silka, now a senior fellow at the University of Maine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.” This experience helped me learn the need for co-production of knowledge if research is to make a difference and avoid the loading dock problem.
As a research social psychologist, in my career earlier I did all of my research “in the lab” and wrote academic pieces about this work, such as the book “Intuitive Judgments of Change” that reported years of studies in the lab on how people use information to judge various changes such as shifts in behavior and policy. Involving as it was to do the research, it likely was of little help in digging down on how to address views of change such as about climate change.
Maine presents many opportunities for community science and in involving diverse groups in this work. Efforts regarding the forests, the schools, Maine’s offshore wind power development, the climate and many other topics are already taking place in Maine using community science methods. And Maine struggles with problems that need such approaches to science. Just look at the Bangor Daily News articles in recent times. There are articles on our bird populations and what is happening to them and reports on “forever chemicals” and the need to understand the contaminants in our environments. And there are many other topics where community science can be an important asset for solving our problems.
So, how can you get involved? There are many opportunities and many initiatives going on with groups such as Maine Audubon. And there are exciting books we can read together such as Caren Cooper’s “Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery.” Stay in touch. I can be reached at Silka@maine.edu.