By Laurel White
When you ask Percival Matthews to define “civic science,” he doesn’t have a simple answer.
One way to embrace the idea of civic science, Matthews explains, is to begin any scientific endeavor with the knowledge that you are a person as well as a scientist — a person who was born and lives in a community and whose science is going to affect that community for better or worse. (Hopefully, for better.)
The second way to understand civic science, he says, is to accept that the new and growing field doesn’t — and shouldn’t — have a concrete definition right now.
“What’s important is for us to continue to ask the question, ‘What should civic science be?’” Matthews says.
Matthews is the associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the UW–Madison School of Education and an associate professor in its Department of Educational Psychology. He has long been passionate about building bridges between academia and the “real world,” and that passion has found a perfect home in his role as an advisory board member for the Civic Science Fellows program. The nationwide program, which has strong UW–Madison roots, seeks to reimagine how scientists interact and collaborate with the communities around them.
“One of the big things for us in the program is a thought that pretty much parallels the Wisconsin Idea,” Matthews says, referencing the historic guiding principle of UW–Madison. “We’re supposed to be doing things that are helping people.”
The Civic Science Fellows program launched at UW–Madison and several other partner institutions across the country in 2020. The program, funded by a number of philanthropic organizations including the Rita Allen Foundation, supports research projects that examine how communities and scientists can better work together to solve big problems. The program’s creation was spearheaded in part by Dietram Scheufele, the Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication at the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. In 2018, Scheufele co-authored an essay, “The Civic Science Imperative,” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that planted the seed for the initiative.
“We said science needs to fundamentally rethink its orientation and really live up to its civic responsibility,” Scheufele explains. “That translated to the program.”
The Civic Science Fellows program’s current group of 22 fellows based at universities and nonprofit organizations across the country have launched research projects that examine a wide range of barriers people face when attempting to interact with science or scientists, from misinformation to cultural insensitivities and bureaucratic red tape.
Nicole Krause, the fellow currently working at UW–Madison, has aimed her research at audiences that are commonly alienated from science for one reason or another, including political conservatives and religious and rural communities. Krause notes there has been a recent surge of research that examines some communities’ alienation from science, but says the aim of her project is unique. She is looking to delve into how some groups are pushed away from science because of their disconnect with scientists as people.
“A lot of the research and action trying to address polarization and communication breakdowns was missing something,” she says. “We need to expand research that reflects people’s relationship to science in all dimensions.”
Krause says her personal background as a first generation college student from a conservative and religious household has informed and motivated some of her work.
“I have a lot of firsthand experience with perspectives of scientists by people who aren’t disputing scientific facts, but who sometimes perceive scientists as elitist or condescending, or as dismissive of people who do not share scientists’ value systems, moral beliefs, and priorities,” she says.
Matthews and eight other Civic Science Fellows advisory committee members help steer the program at a high level, shaping its mission and perspective, as well as on a granular level, advising the work of fellows like Krause.
“We’re basically helping to build something and rebuild it as we move along, and that requires a lot of creativity and a lot of unconventional thinking,” Scheufele, who chairs the committee, explains. “The advisory committee provides exactly that.”
Scheufele, who met Matthews on campus several years ago, says Matthews has “a fortuitous set of skills that were a perfect match” for this work.
“His global outlook on the way universities work and what their role is in societies was really exciting,” he says.
Matthews says he was moved to join the project because of its unique approach of marrying concepts many people wouldn’t necessarily put together: civic engagement and scientific inquiry.
“They were thinking on the front end of how science is affecting society and can be in service of society,” he says of the program.
Matthews says he could see a civic science program or certificate becoming an academic offering at UW–Madison at some point in the future — perhaps even within the School of Education.
“As educators, we start with a deep thinking about the community first,” he says. “It’s where a lot of us start.”