A System's Approach to Sustainable Development

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Citizen Science

The increasing importance of science in today's world calls for far greater interaction among all stakeholders. Science is about objectivity, reliability, and validity (non-normative): what will, or might, happen. Societal decision-making however, is human value-based and supported by community advocacy (normative): what should happen. This realization causes Five E's Unlimited to promote a new direction in community-based decision-making and governance that can most effectively benefit from the use of science by:

  • identifying the communities/constituencies;
  • evaluating their attitudes, perceptions and values;
  • engaging them in a facilitation/consensus-building process;
  • evaluating common goals and commonly-developed alternatives; and
  • promoting effective advocacy.

Citizens and other stakeholders in communities are increasingly demanding to be well informed about the activities of government as well as economic development interests, to have emphasis placed on socio-economic and environmental sustainability of their communities, and to have significant input into the decision-making processes of government and industry that directly affects this sustainability. From this growing need of civil society to have the capacity and be empowered to take charge of their own destiny, it becomes apparent that a new methodology is required that will adequately involve all interested stakeholders in dialogue and decision-making pertinent to their futures. An effective means to accomplish this goal of full public involvement, awareness, and integrated discourse is through the application of “citizen science” as is outlined in the above diagram.

When one shifts from a view of science as exclusively an academic activity and begins to see science as a part of a larger social dialogue and deliberation — if one begins, that is, to see science as mission-oriented instead of exclusively curiosity-driven — relevance to real social values becomes one important determinant of what counts as good science. Adaptive managers believe in sharing scientific and technology information as a part of the public process, rather than as an input into the process from the “outside,” as demonstrated by the adjacent diagram that shows experts (expert-ways-of-knowing) sharing information with civil society to develop “public ways of knowing.” Successful use of science in a public, democratic policy formation process requires a free flow of information in multiple directions. What the idea of sustainability is missing up to now, is a multidisciplinary, integrative language capable of supporting multidisciplinary public discourse and deliberations related to community-based research.

Ecologists, sociologists, and economists will have much more impact on policy if they use terms that transparently link technical information and theory to widely favored civil society values and goals. Failure to employ language that helps stakeholders from civil society make connections between science and technology trends and social values has a great cost: the public and the policymakers know whether trends in data are good or bad only if they are willing to learn a body of scientific information and its application to sectors of public interest.

As Alan Leshner, the CEO of AAAS recently stated, "The Nexus Where Science Meets Society" (Science, Vol. 307; February 11, 2005), reminds us of many events of the past few years that suggest the relationship between science and society is undergoing significant stress. Science and its products are intersecting more frequently with certain human beliefs and values. Some members of the public are finding certain lines of scientific research and their outcomes disquieting, while others challenge the kind of science taught in schools. This disaffection and shift in attitudes predict a more difficult and intrusive relationship between science and society in times to come if we don’t find another way of “doing business.” Five E's promotes the role of citizen science in all its work.

Experts, mostly unwittingly, have created a conceptual gulf between the information they gather and the social values people cherish, making it very difficult for participants in policy discussions to see the relationship between ecological and socio-economic science and public values. Policy discourse currently suffers because, whereas economic data is easily associated with the well-being of citizens in our democracy, ecological data has no such resonance. And yet, in the overall dialogue about community values the two are very much interrelated. Five E's approach to management therefore includes a means of identifying, justifying, and/or legitimating science by reference to some social value. This is exactly where the application of citizen science can make a real difference.

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Last Update: 1/1/15
Web Author: Dr. R. Warren Flint