A Guide to Public Deliberation

Science is advancing at an unprecedented speed, and scientists are facing major ethical dilemmas daily. Unfortunately, the general public rarely gets opportunities to share their opinions and thoughts on these ethical challenges, moving us, as a society, towards a future that is not inclusive of most people’s ideas and beliefs. Scientists regularly call for public engagement opportunities to discuss cutting-edge research. In fact, “71% of scientists [associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)] believe the public has either some or a lot of interest in their specialty area.” Sadly, scientists’ calls often go unnoticed and unanswered, as there continue to be inadequate mechanisms for these engagement opportunities to come to fruition.

To Deliberate or Not to Deliberate

Public deliberation, when performed well, can lead to more transparency, accountability to the public, and the emergence of ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed. Due to the direct involvement of participants from the public, decisions made through such initiatives can also be seen as more legitimate. On a societal level, public deliberation has been shown to encourage pluralism among participants.

Despite the importance of deliberation, it’s important to note that it is not always the best way to engage the public. Planning a public deliberation event — a citizens’ panel, for instance — takes a large amount of time and resources. Plus, incentivizing a random sample of citizens to participate (which is considered the gold standard of deliberation) is difficult. It’s therefore paramount to first assess whether the topic of focus is suitable for public deliberation. 

To assess the appropriateness of a deliberation topic, consider the following criteria (inspired by criteria set forth by Stephanie Solomon and Julia Abelson and the Kettering Foundation):

  1. Does the issue involve conflicting public opinions? Issues that involve setting priorities in healthcare, for example, may benefit from public deliberation as there is no singular correct answer; deliberation may offer a more clear and holistic view of what is best for a community, according to the community.
  2. Is the issue controversial? If so, deliberation can be a good tool as it brings many opinions into view and can foster pluralism as mentioned previously.
  3. Does the issue have no clear-cut solution and is “intractable, ongoing, or systemic”?
  4. Do all available solutions have significant drawbacks?
  5. Does the community at large have an interest in the problem?
  6. Would the discussion of the issue benefit from a combination of expert and real-world experience and knowledge (what Solomon and Abelson call “hybrid” topics)? Certain issues may solely require technical knowledge but many issues would benefit from the views of the public as well.1
  7. Are citizens and the government on the same page about the issue? If not, public deliberation can foster trust, but only if the initiative is done with the intention of taking the public’s conclusions into account.

Setting Goals

If it’s deemed that the topic is suitable for public deliberation, the next step is to set goals for the public deliberation initiative. Julia Abelson, Lead of the Public Engagement in Health Policy Project and Professor at McMaster University, has explained that one of the significant differentiating factors between successful and unsuccessful initiatives is thoughtful planning and organization — including setting clear goals and objectives organizers would like to meet by the end of deliberation. Having an end goal not only helps with planning but also allows for a realistic goal to be shared with deliberation participants. Setting unrealistic expectations as to what the deliberation process is meant to achieve — and subsequently not achieving those goals — will lead participants and citizens, in general, to lose trust in the deliberation process (and organizational body).

Is the goal of deliberation to bring new ideas into view and share those with relevant agencies (governmental or otherwise)? Is the goal instead to enact change in current policies? Is the goal to help shape new policies? The aforementioned Citizens’ Reference Panel on Health Technologies in Canada did not directly impact the government’s decisions, but served to make experts aware of a viewpoint they had not previously explored. This is in contrast to the typical “sit and listen” initiatives that don’t have as much of a capacity to encourage new ideas to emerge. In another instance, a citizens’ jury in Buckinghamshire, England was formed to discuss how to tackle back pain in the county. The Buckinghamshire Health Authority promised to implement the citizens’ recommendations (as was mandated by a charity that was supporting this public deliberation effort) — and they did.

Expanding on the idea of making promises and accountability, it’s important for the organizing body — which may or may not include a federal agency — to consider its role in implementing the conclusions of the deliberation. Promising to implement the conclusion of the deliberations can serve to invigorate discussion and make participants more engaged, knowing that their discussions can have a direct impact on future decisions. For instance, the British Columbia Biobank Deliberation involved a “commitment at the outset of the deliberation from the leaders of a proposed BC BioLibrary (now funded by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research) that the Bio-Library’s policy discussions would consider suggestions from this deliberation.” Researchers have suggested this may have contributed to participants’ interest in the deliberation event. Despite some examples of implementation following deliberation (such as the Buckinghamshire and Ontario examples), there continues to be a lack of adequate change based on the public’s recommendations. One other instance comes from NASA’s 2014 efforts to involve the public in the discussion around planetary defense (in the context of asteroids) through a participatory technology assessment (PTA). It seems that the PTA helped to spur the creation of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. 

Furthermore, providing updates on implementation to participants, and the public at large, would provide another crucial aspect of accountability: “explanations and justifications.” However, these updates on their own would not fulfill an organization or agency’s duty to accountability as that requires an active dialogue with the public (which is precisely why implementing the conclusions of public deliberation initiatives is important).  

When to Deliberate: Agenda Setting for Citizens

As mentioned above, deliberation can happen at various points during the policymaking pipeline. It has become increasingly popular to include the public early on in the process, such as in an agenda-setting role. This allows the public not only to engage in discussions about a topic but to also set the priorities and frame how the discussions will move forward. As Naomi Scheinerman writes, “with proper agenda setting and precedent creation, the resulting […] questions would be more reflective of what the public is interested in discussing rather than of the companies, industries, and other stakeholder groups.”

A trailblazing model in citizen agenda-setting has been the Ostbelgien Model. The model involves both a permanent Citizens’ Council and ad hoc Citizens’ Panels. Though the members of the Citizens’ Council rotate (and are chosen randomly), one of the permanent roles of the Council is to select topics for the ad hoc Citizens’ Panels, with citizens having a direct hand in what issues their fellow citizens and government should tackle. Since its inception in 2019, the Citizens’ Council has asked Citizens’ Panels to tackle issues such as “how to improve the working conditions of healthcare workers” and “inclusive education.” 


One of the pillars of the success of public deliberation is a well-scoped question that is framed appropriately. Issues that are framed unfairly, meaning they place emphasis on a specific part of the issue while ignoring others, can lead to inaccurate results and a loss of trust between the public and the organizers. Though this depends on the goals of the deliberation, it’s often best for questions to be specific in their scope to allow for concrete results at the end of the deliberation initiative. For example, an online deliberation session in New York City aimed to assess the public’s views on who should be given priority access to COVID-19 vaccines. One of the questions asked participants to rank the order in which they think a pre-specified list of essential workers should get access to the vaccine. This allows for discussion while retaining a clear focus.

Another example comes from climate change. Climate change can be framed in many ways —  through an economic frame, a public health frame, a justice frame, and others. These various framings impact how the public reacts to the issue; in the case of the economic frame, it has led to “political divisiveness.” Focusing instead on the public health frame, for instance, led to greater agreement on policy decisions. Similarly, according to a 2023 policy paper from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an issue like COVID-19 can be less polarizing if the framing used is about solutions to the pandemic rather than solely vaccines. Importantly, the organizers of the public deliberation initiative do not have sole control over the framing of the issue. Citizens often have a pre-existing “frame of thought.” This makes frames tricky yet essential in making it possible to appropriately and productively deliberate a topic. 

Framing is implicit in that participants in deliberation are not aware of it, making it all the more crucial to be wary of the framing. Thus, it becomes clear how seemingly unimportant factors, such as setting, also affect deliberation. According to Mauro Barisione, the framing of the setting includes:

Selecting a Type of Public Deliberation

Another factor that merits attention at this point is the type of public deliberation being undertaken. Though public deliberation has been referred to as one entity thus far, there are many different types, including, but not limited to, citizens’ juries, planning cells, consensus conferences, citizens’ assemblies, and deliberative polls. Below are some further details about various types of public deliberation (where a source is not included below, it was adapted from Smith & Setälä).

Citizens’ juries

Planning cells

Consensus conferences/citizens’ conferences

Citizens’ assemblies

Deliberative polls

A note on online deliberation

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many initiatives to shift to a fully online modality. This highlighted many of the opportunities as well as challenges that online deliberation presents. One consideration is accessibility, a double-edged sword when it comes to deliberation. Virtual deliberation alleviates the need for a venue or hotel accommodations — decreasing costs for organizers — and may allow participants to continue to go to work at the same time. However, difficulties with using technology and a lack of access to a device or an internet connection are drawbacks. Another opportunity presented by virtual deliberation is to provide more balanced viewpoints on the topic of deliberation. For instance, there are no geographical barriers as to the experts organizers can invite to speak at an event. 

A concern somewhat unique to online deliberation is data privacy and security. While this can also be an issue with in-person initiatives, many tools that participants are familiar with and may prefer to use do not have robust security.

A note on cost

While the cost of many deliberation initiatives is not publicly available, the available estimates range from $20,000 (citizens’ jury) to $95,000 (consensus conference) to $2.6 million (Europe-wide deliberative poll of 4300 people) to $5.5 million (citizens’ assembly). Note that these costs come from a range of time points and locations (though they have been adjusted for inflation) and only serve as rough estimates. A major contributor to these costs, particularly for longer deliberative initiatives, is hotel or venue costs as well as the reimbursement of participants. This reimbursement is costly but a part of the founding philosophy of many types of deliberation, including that of planning cells.

Selecting Participants

Many different approaches can be taken to selecting participants for deliberative forums. Unfortunately, there are inherent trade-offs in selecting a sampling method or approach. For instance, random sampling is more in line with the principle of “equal opportunity” and may promote “cognitive diversity”— the diversity of ideas, experiences, and approaches participants bring to the event — but is prone to creating deliberation groups that are not representative of the population at large. This is particularly true when the deliberative forum has few participants. This is why, depending on the type of deliberation event (and therefore number of participants chosen), a different type of sampling may be appropriate. 

Another approach is random-stratified sampling, where participants are randomly chosen and invited to participate in the deliberative event. There is often an unequal distribution among those who accept the invitation — for instance, individuals with higher socio-economic statuses may respond disproportionately more. In this case, a more representative sample may be chosen from those who responded. Quotas may also be set, such as ensuring that a certain number of female-identifying participants are included in a deliberative event. For this method, the organizers must decide on groups of individuals who are primarily affected by the topic being discussed, as well as groups often excluded from such deliberations. A deliberative forum on immigration, for instance, may call for the presence of a participant who is an immigrant to ensure polarization does not take place. In certain instances, purposive sampling — where individuals from groups whose views are specifically being sought are purposefully chosen — may also be appropriate. Furthermore, some researchers suggest including a “critical mass” of individuals from typically underserved groups. This can serve to make participants more comfortable in speaking up, ensure that the diversity of discussions is retained when participants are broken up into smaller groups (in certain forms of public deliberation), and provide a step in avoiding tokenism.

Furthermore, there are newer methods of selecting participants that combine both random and stratified sampling — namely algorithms that try to maximize both representation and equal opportunity of participation. One instance is the LEXIMIN algorithm which “choose[s] representative panels while selecting individuals with probabilities as close to equal as mathematically possible.” This algorithm is open-access and can be used at panelot.org

Aside from considerations for selecting participants, it’s important to consider the selected individuals’ ability and willingness to participate. Several factors can dissuade selected individuals from taking part, including but not limited to, the cost of missing work, the cost of childcare, transportation costs, and lack of trust in the organizing body or agency. Prohibitive costs are addressed by several of the deliberation models discussed in the “Selecting a Type of Public Deliberation” section. These models strongly suggest stipends which, at minimum, cover incidental expenses. A lack of trust is a particularly important issue to address as it can hinder the organizer’s ability to reach individuals typically left out of policymaking discussions. One approach to addressing this once again brings us to making — and critically, keeping — promises regarding the implementation of the conclusions of participants. Framing (as discussed in an earlier section) can also contribute to building trust, though, importantly, this is not a gap that can be bridged overnight. A more extensive discussion on inclusion in public deliberation forums can be found here.

Bringing On Experts & Creating Materials

Prior to selecting the group who will participate in the public deliberation activity, steps need to be taken to organize which experts will be part of the event and create the informational material that will be provided to participants before deliberations begin. 

Here, efforts must be made to ensure sufficient and balanced information is presented without creating a framing event where participants enter discussions with a biased perspective. It has been found that participants readily integrate the facts and opinions presented by experts/witnesses prior to deliberation and critically engage with their points. A deliberative engagement initiative in British Columbia, Canada about biobanking brought on a variety of experts and stakeholders to present to participants. To ensure fairness, presenters were “given specific topics, limited presentation times, and asked to use terms as defined in the information booklet” that was previously provided. A unique component included in this initiative was the ability for participants to ask presenters questions in between the two deliberative session weekends, which were two weeks apart, through a website. 

In addition, participants were provided with booklets and readings. In the case of the British Columbia initiative, to create booklets and background materials, a literature review was performed. Once more, the materials should provide a balance of opinions. They should include the most important facts relevant to the question at hand, some of the most common/salient approaches and points with regards to the question, and the weaknesses of each approach/point (Mauro Barisione). It is also best to keep materials succinct, with some deliberative initiatives keeping their materials to one page long.

Though the traditional approach is to have experts present prior to deliberation, other methods have also been used. For instance, a Colorado deliberation initiative focused on future water supply used an “on tap but not on top” expert approach. Rather than call experts to present information, they instead provided one-page information sheets, followed directly by deliberation. Experts were present during the deliberation session. When prompted by a participant, a facilitator would ask an expert to briefly join the group to answer the participant’s question. The approach was largely successful, though one “rogue expert” frequently interjected in a group’s discussion, providing his own opinions. One limiting factor to this approach is time; the deliberative sessions mentioned above were two hours long. But many other forms of deliberation are significantly longer, making coordinating with experts for long durations of time difficult. Despite these challenges, this approach provides an interesting way of integrating experts into the deliberation process so their expertise is best used and the participants’ questions are best answered as they arise.


A good facilitator or moderator is critical to the deliberation process. As explained by Kara N. Dillard, moderators set the ground rules for the discussion and prevent any one participant from dominating the session; this is called presentation. It has been found that clearly setting expectations for the discussion can lead to greater deliberative functioning — which, for our purposes, includes the exchange of ideas/reasons, equality, and freedom to speak and be heard — according to participants. Moderators also guide the discussion in two main ways: asking questions that challenge what participants have already discussed (elicitation); and connecting ideas that were previously brought up to new topics and “play[ing] devil’s advocate” to bring forth new ideas (interpretation). At the end of the session, moderators also help participants produce conclusions by asking what areas of consensus and contention were present throughout the discussion.

Moderators can take multiple approaches to facilitating, with one framework proposed by Kara N. Dillard separating moderators into three groups: passive, moderate, and involved. Passive moderators take a “backseat” approach to moderating. They often describe their role to participants as only being there to prevent a participant from dominating the conversation, rather than actively leading it. This has led to unfocused discussions and unclear conclusions. Participants often jumped around and went off-topic. Though this passive approach may work in some instances, a moderate or involved approach often leads to better deliberation.

Involved facilitators actively lead the discussion by asking questions that challenge participants to think in new ways, sometimes acting as a “quasi-participant.” In line with this, these moderators often play devil’s advocate to move the discussion in new, albeit related, directions. These moderators ask follow-up questions and “editorialize” to help participants flesh out their ideas together and aim to pinpoint points of contention so participants can further discuss them. If participants begin to veer off-topic, involved moderators will move the group back into a more focused direction while also connecting this new topic to the main question, allowing for new thoughts to emerge. These moderators take the time to sum up the main points brought up by participants after each point so conclusions become clear. Once more, this approach may not work in all instances but often leads to deeper conversations and more focused conclusions.

As implied by the name, moderate facilitators are somewhere in between passive and involved facilitators. These moderators ask questions to guide the discussion, but don’t often challenge the participants and let them take the wheel. These moderators use the elicitation strategy frequently, an important difference between moderate and passive moderators.

Due to the skills needed to facilitate a deliberation event well, organizers or government agencies looking to organize these events may require would-be facilitators to undergo brief training

What Comes Next

After deliberation has taken place, the next step is to write a report summarizing the conclusions of the deliberative forum. As we have seen several times with other topics, there are multiple approaches to this. One approach is to leave the report writing to the facilitators, organizers, or researchers who use their own takeaways from the deliberation (in the case of facilitators) or summarize based on recordings or transcripts (in the case of organizers or researchers). However, this method introduces bias into the process and doesn’t allow participants to be directly involved in creating conclusions or next steps.

An alternative is to allocate time towards coming up with conclusions together with participants both throughout and at the end of the deliberative session. Recall that involved facilitators frequently summarize the conclusions of the group throughout the deliberation, making this final task both more efficient and more participant-led. Participants can directly and immediately add on to or push back against the facilitator’s summary. As a guideline, Public Agenda, an organization conducting public engagement research, divides the summary into the following sections: areas of agreement, areas of disagreement, questions requiring further research, and high-priority action steps.

Big Issues for Science Policy in a Challenging World: A Conversation with Dr. Alondra Nelson

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) seeks to advance progress on a broad suite of contemporary issues where science, technology, and innovation policy can deliver dramatic progress. In recognition of her work in public service, FAS will honor Dr. Alondra Nelson with the Public Service Award next month alongside other distinguished figures including Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN) for their work in Congress making the CHIPS & Science Act a reality to ensure a better future for our nation. 

In addition to my role as Senior Fellow in Science Policy for FAS, I have the pleasure of chairing Membership Engagement for Section X, a governance committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) focused on Societal Impacts of Science and Engineering. I had the honor of co-moderating a session featuring Dr. Alondra Nelson last week, titled Big Issues for Science Policy in a Challenging World—A Conversation with Dr. Alondra Nelson at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Washington D.C. 

The hybrid event was co-organized with Section K (Social, Economic, and Political Sciences) and co-moderated with Dr. Barbara Schneider, John A. Hannah University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education and the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University and Immediate Past Chair of AAAS Section K. We led a targeted Q&A discussion informed by audience questions in-person and online. 

The conversation focused on how scientific and technical expertise can have a seat at the policymaking table, which aligns with the mission of FAS, and provided key insights from an established leader. Opening remarks featured reflections from Dr. Alondra Nelson on the current state of key issues in science policy that were priorities during her time in the Biden-Harris administration, and her views on the landscape of challenges that should occupy our attention in science policy today and in the future. Dr. Alondra Nelson is the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. A former deputy assistant to President Joe Biden, she served as acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the first ever Deputy Director for Science and Society. 

FAS is highly invested in ensuring that federal government spending is directed towards enhancing our nation’s competitiveness in science and technology. Dr. Nelson emphasized the idea of innovation for a purpose, and how scientific research and technology development have the potential to improve society, including through STEM education and the infrastructure necessary for research investments to be successful. She also discussed how science and technology can advance democratic values, and highlighted three examples from her time at OSTP that provide promise for the future, including: the cancer moonshot; expanding access to federally funded research across the country; and the need for bringing new voices into science and technology.

Public trust in science and public engagement. The moderated discussion began with the idea of public trust in science in order to set the stage for the current policy landscape. We are operating in a low trust environment for science, and we should make scientific data more accessible to the public. She also highlighted that we need to engage the public in the design process of science and technology, which is why the OSTP Division of Science and Society was initially created. On this point, Dr. Nelson also said that “science policy is a space of possibility” and that we need to expand these opportunities more widely.

FAS Fellow Adriana Bankston in conversation with Alondra Nelson at the American Educational Research Association.
“Science policy is a space of possibility”

FAS Science Policy Fellow Adriana Bankston in conversation with Alondra Nelson at the American Educational Research Association.

Scientific workforce, federal investments and international collaboration. Dr. Nelson described the need to make the implementation of CHIPS and Science a reality and to bring more young voices into science and technology. She remarked that the promise of the CHIPS and Science Act is the intention around investments, and that “we need the ‘and science’ part to be fully funded in order to support the future scientific workforce.” To the question of how we should target federal investments in science and technology, she emphasized the need for collaborative research, bipartisan opportunities, and continuing to study the ‘science of science’ in order to understand the best ways for improving the system, while recognizing that the ROI from the investments we make today may take a few generations to be evident. Relatedly, on the question of ensuring our nation’s competitiveness in science and technology while fostering international collaboration, Dr. Nelson reminded the audience that “national security is a concern around many STEM areas of research.” 

Including marginalized voices and technological development. A significant part of the conversation focused on ensuring that marginalized voices have a seat at the table in science and technology. Dr. Nelson stated bluntly that “you can’t have good science without diversity” and that we need to support institutions across the country and engage with different types of educational institutions that may have been traditionally marginalized. To this end, as an example, she emphasized that OSTP previously engaged indigenous knowledge in its work around science and technology governance. The field of artificial intelligence (AI) was also discussed as an example of an area where we need to elevate the visibility of ethical issues that marginalized communities face. The CHIPS and Science Act focused on key technology areas that could create jobs in fields such as AI, leading to a discussion on the need for better policy around emerging technologies, creating high quality jobs, and a stronger focus on workers in the innovation economy. 

The event concluded with a high level discussion on policy impact, to which Dr. Nelson remarked that “if you want your science to have an impact, you should find ways to elevate the visibility of your findings among policymakers.” She stated that this will necessitate expanding our current methods to include broader voices in science and technology in the future. We look forward to honoring Dr. Nelson’s impact in the field during next month’s FAS event.

Government Shutdowns Are ‘Science Shutdowns’

Government shutdowns are “Science Shutdowns” – a wildly expensive and ineffective tactic that slows or stops scientific progress at the expense of everyday Americans.

Agencies are busy preparing contingency plans for a government shutdown as Congress spars for political points. FAS would like to draw attention to the danger and absurdity of this tactic as it relates to science, as well as our nation’s safety, competitiveness, and cost burden. 

There are four (4) primary results of any government shutdown, and each affect science, which is why we refer to government shutdowns as “Science Shutdowns”:

1. Ongoing Experiments / Activities Requiring Ongoing Observation are Disrupted.

This isn’t just an aggravation to researchers; stoppage destroys work underway at considerable costs to the public. Some examples:

The Department of Commerce will cease operational activity related to most research activities at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

During a shutdown, researcher access to certain federally funded user facilities and scientific infrastructure can be restricted. When this happens, it can mean lost experiments, disrupted projects, and missed opportunities for students and U.S. industry. (See: FAS work in Social Innovation, specifically STEM Education and Education R&D.)

The Department of Energy’s nuclear verification work––particularly work involving international partnerships––is likely to be restricted. This could have implications for U.S. leadership on non-proliferation, arms control, and risk reduction. (While Nuclear weapons deployments, security, and transportation operations would be largely unaffected due to national security exemptions and funding contingencies, this is still a dangerous situation. See: FAS’s work in Nuclear Weapons.)  

2. New initiatives can’t continue (or begin).

Science and technology undergird a large percentage of entrepreneurial startups and economic clusters across the country. Stopping or slowing these businesses impact local communities of all sizes, in every state. 

One example: Functionally all SBA (Small Business Administration) lending activity and program support will cease. Small businesses across the country will lose access to this critical source of financing. SBA lending is used to finance growth, but also (critically) to provide working capital for small businesses. Government shutdowns delay Tech Hubs and Engines Type 2 funding, disrupting ecosystem building efforts across the country (See: FAS work in Ecosystems and Entrepreneurship).

3. Funding Decisions are Halted and Delayed.

Shutdowns can mean funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health (NIH) must furlough most of their staff. This results in delays and rescheduling of review panels, the people responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of a new medicine, for example. Stoppages ultimately delay award decisions and slow advances.

Such delays can affect thousands of American researchers and students and disrupt vital research in many crucial areas. One example limited by a shutdown pause is emerging research in the bioeconomy, a growing part of our global competitiveness. (See: FAS work in Science Policy and bioeconomy, specifically.) 

4. Upgrades, Repairs, and Modernization of National Research Infrastructure at Labs and Universities are Frozen.

Labs across the country are continuously upgrading facilities to leverage the latest technology to remain competitive and secure. A government shutdown arrests this necessary work.   

Bottom line: A government shutdown is a science shutdown; the decision to pull the plug on government funding incur steep costs on wind-down and re-start, and leads to massive general waste and disruption. We must work together to find resolutions that do not involve holding science hostage during a government shutdown.

Opening Up Scientific Enterprise to Public Participation

This article was written as part of the Future of Open Science Policy project, a partnership between the Federation of American Scientists, the Center for Open Science, and the Wilson Center. This project aims to crowdsource innovative policy proposals that chart a course for the next decade of federal open science. To read the other articles in the series, and to submit a policy idea of your own, please visit the project page.

For decades, communities have had little access to scientific information despite paying for it with their tax dollars. The August 2022 Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum thus catalyzed transformative change by requiring all federally funded research to be made publicly available by the end of 2025. Implementation of the memo has been supported by OSTP’s “Year of Open Science”, which is coordinating actions across the federal government to advance open access research. Access, though, is the first step to building a more responsive, equitable research ecosystem. A more recent memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and OSTP outlining research and development (R&D) policy priorities for fiscal year (FY) 2025 called on federal agencies to address long-standing inequities by broadening public participation in R&D. This is a critical demand signal for solutions that ensure that federally funded research delivers for the American people.

Public engagement researchers have long been documenting the importance of partnerships with key local stakeholders — such as local government and community-based organizations — in realizing the full breadth of participation with a given community. The lived experience of community members can be an invaluable asset to the scientific process, informing and even shaping research questions, data collection, and interpretation of results. Public participation can also benefit the scientific enterprise by realizing active translation and implementation of research findings, helping to return essential public benefits from the $170 billion invested in R&D each year.

The current reality is that many local governments and community-based organizations do not have the opportunities, incentives, or capacity to engage effectively in federally-funded scientific research. For example, Headwaters Economics found that a significant proportion of communities in the United States do not have the staffing, resources, or expertise to apply to receive and manage federal funding. Additionally, community-based organizations (CBOs) — the groups that are most connected to people facing problems that science could be activated to solve, such as health inequities and environmental injustices — face similar capacity barriers, especially around compliance with federal grants regulations and reporting obligations. Few research funds exist to facilitate the building and maintenance of strong relationships with CBOs and communities, or to provide capacity-building financing to ensure their full participation. Thus, relationships between communities and academia, companies, and the federal government often consume those communities’ time and resources without much return on their investment.

Great participatory science exists, if we know where to look

Place-based investments in regional innovation and research and development (R&D) unlocked by the CHIPS and Science Act (i.e. Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Tech Hubs and National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines and Convergence Accelerator) are starting to provide transformative opportunities to build local research capacity in an equitable manner. What they’ll need are the incentives, standards, requirements, and programmatic ideas to institutionalize equitable research partnerships.

Models of partnership have been established between community organizations, academic institutions, and/or the federal government focused on equitable relationships to generate evidence and innovations that advance community needs. 

An example of an academic-community partnership is the Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center (HFRCC). The HFRCC evaluates and must approve all research conducted in Flint, Michigan. HFRCC designs proposed studies that would align better with community concerns and con­text and ensures that benefits flow directly back to the community. Health equity is assessed holistically: considering the economic, environmental, behavioral, and physical health of residents. Finally, all work done in Flint is made open access through this organization. From these efforts we learn that communities can play a vital role in defining problems to solve and ensuring the research will be done with equity in mind.

An example of a federal agency-community partnership is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Participatory Science Initiative. Through citizen science processes, the EPA has enabled data collection of under-monitored areas to identify climate-related and environmental issues that require both technical and policy solutions. The EPA helps to facilitate these citizen-science initiatives through providing resources on the best air monitoring equipment and how to then visualize field data. These initiatives specifically empower low-income and minority communities who face greater environmental hazards, but often lack power and agency to vocalize concerns. 

Finally, communities themselves can be the generators of research projects, initially without a partner organization. In response to the lack of innovation in diabetic care management, Type 1 diabetic patients founded openAPS. This open source effort spurred the creation of an overnight, closed loop artificial pancreas system to reduce disease burden and save lives. Through decentralized deployment to over 2700 individuals, there are 63 million hours of real-world “closed-loop” data, with the results of prospective trials and randomized control trials (RCTs) showing fewer highs and less severe lows, i.e., greater quality of life. Thus, this innovation is now ripe for federal investment and partnership for it to reach a further critical scale.

Scaling participatory science requires infrastructure

Participatory science and innovation is still an emerging field. Yet, effective models for infrastructuring participation within scientific research enterprises have emerged over the past 20 years to build community engagement capacity of research institutions. Participatory research infrastructure (PRI) could take the form of the following: 

  1. Offices that develop tools for interfacing with communities, like citizen’s juries, online platforms, deliberative forums, and future-thinking workshops.
  2. Ongoing technology assessment projects to holistically evaluate innovation and research along dimensions of equity, trust, access, etc.
  3. Infrastructure (physical and digital) for research, design experimentation, and open innovation led by community members.
  4. Organized stakeholder networks for co-creation and community-driven citizen science
  5. Funding resources to build CBO capacity to meaningfully engage (examples including the RADx-UP program from the NIH and Civic Innovation Challenge from NSF).
  6. Governance structures with community members in decision-making roles and requirements that CBOs help to shape the direction of the research proposals.
  7. Peer-review committees staffed by members of the public, demonstrated recently by NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines
  8. Coalitions that utilize research as an input for collective action and making policy and governance decisions to advance communities’ goals.

Call to action

The responsibility of federally-funded scientific research is to serve the public good. And yet, because there are so few interventions that have been scaled, participatory science will remain a “nice to have” versus an imperative for the scientific enterprise. To bring participatory science into the mainstream, there will need to be creative policy solutions that create incentive mechanisms, standards, funding streams, training ecosystems, assessment mechanisms, and organizational capacity for participatory science. To meet this moment, we need a broader set of voices contributing ideas on this aspect of open science and countless others. That is why we recently launched an Open Science Policy Sprint, in partnership with the Center for Open Science and the Wilson Center. If you have ideas for federal actions that can help the U.S. meet and exceed its open science goals, we encourage you to submit your proposals here.

Why and How Faculty Should Participate in U.S. Policy Making

If the U.S. Congress is to produce sound policies that benefit the public good, science and technology faculty members must become active participants in the American policy-making process. One key element of that process is congressional hearings: public forums where members of Congress question witnesses, learn about pressing issues, develop policy initiatives and conduct oversight of both the executive branch and corporate practices.

Faculty in science and technology should contribute to congressional hearings because: 1) legislators should use data and scientifically derived knowledge to guide policy development, 2) deep expertise is needed to support effective oversight of complex issues like the spread of misinformation on internet platforms or pandemic response, and 3) members of Congress are decision makers on major issues that impact the science and technology community, such as research funding priorities or the role of foreign nationals in the research enterprise. A compelling moment during a hearing can have a profound impact on public policy, and faculty members can help make those moments happen.

Read the full article at Inside Higher Ed.

Re-envisioning Reporting of Scientific Methods


The information contained in the methods section of the overwhelming majority of research publications is insufficient to definitively evaluate research practices, let alone reproduce the work. Publication—and subsequent reuse—of detailed scientific methodologies can save researchers time and money, and can accelerate the pace of research overall. However, there is no existing mechanism for collective action to improve reporting of scientific methods. The Biden-Harris Administration should direct research-funding agencies to support development of new standards for reporting scientific methods. These standards would (1) address ongoing challenges in scientific reproducibility, and (2) benefit our nation’s scientific enterprise by improving research quality, reliability, and efficiency.

Supporting Federal Decision Making through Participatory Technology Assessment


The incoming administration faces complex issues at the intersections of science, technology, and society. As such, the next administration should establish a special unit within the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI)—an existing federally funded research and development center (FFRDC)—to provide capacity for Participatory Technology Assessment (pTA) to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and across executive branch agencies.

A pTA unit within STPI would provide pTA as a service for the executive branch regarding emerging scientific and technological issues and questions. By integrating public voices alongside expert assessments, the next administration can ensure that federal science and technology decisions provide the greatest benefit to society.

A Federal Strategy for Science Engagement


The Biden-Harris Administration should adopt a federal strategy for science engagement that enables all Americans to learn from, use, and participate in the process and outputs of science.

Investments in science and technology have the greatest impact when paired with increased public access to, and participation in, the scientific enterprise. Emerging areas of basic and applied research, such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, have important implications for society. Science engagement is essential for improving public scientific literacy, raising and discussing ethical considerations, and aligning research with public priorities and values. Broadening participation in the scientific enterprise is more than a question of who “does” the science. Rather, it requires looking beyond traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for creative ways to increase public exposure to, understanding of, and meaningful contributions to science.

The first steps in a federal strategy for science engagement should focus on establishing and cultivating federal expertise in science engagement and improving coordination among federal science agencies. These efforts will emphasize knowledge sharing and ultimately allow for a greater understanding of the impact of science engagement on community and scientific outcomes.

This memo was drafted by contributors from the Day One Project, Advancing Research Impact in Society, and LISTEN Network, with generous support from the Kavli Foundation in consultation with participants from a Day One Project workshop focused on science engagement.

Improving Science Advice for Executive Branch Decision-Making


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the crucial need for science to inform policy. However, the science-policy interface has a broader history of systemic challenges spanning sectors, from climate, to energy, to water resources, to cybersecurity and beyond. The near-term policy window created by the pandemic offers an ideal time to act while the attention of policymakers and the public is focused on the key role of science in policy. There are five key areas of action to create meaningful progress in carving improved pathways for science advice:

  1. Sharpening the focus of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Act (P.L. 115-435) to define scientific knowledge as a key subset of “evidence” and develop formal structures for non-federal academic experts to participate in the development of the required agency learning agendas.
  2. Widening the role of Federally-Funded Research and Development Centers., especially the Science and Technology Policy Institute.
  3. Leveraging the Intergovernmental Personnel Agreement (IPA) to bring more non-federal subject matter experts into key government positions.
  4. Reducing administrative barriers to the establishment of Federal Advisory Committees under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
  5. Revising the Broader Impacts Requirements for National Science Foundation grantees to include more direct pathways for the outputs of scientific research to reach decision-makers.

Modernizing the Relationship between Scientists and the Public


The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed science to the forefront of public attention. For many Americans, following daily reports about the novel coronavirus represents the first time they are seeing science and scientists operate in “real time”. This experience is new for scientists too. Scientists are not trained to engage the public, despite the fact that scientific research is put to work daily to help improve lives, address the needs of diverse communities, and solve problems at a national and global scale.

This proposal offers a set of actions to give federally-funded Ph.D. students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), specific training to enable them to engage effectively with the public. In turn, this will increase trust in and support for the scientific enterprise, drive stronger interest in STEM careers, set the stage for faster response to threats, and build a stronger, science-driven U.S. economy. Lastly, at a local level, taxpayers will benefit directly as more scientists are trained to engage regularly and meaningfully with schools, community institutions, and local governments.

A Civic Research Initiative to Transform State and Local Government


State and local governments are not taking full advantage of data and technology innovation that could help address key priorities such as delivery of local public services, management and design of the built environment, and fulfillment of climate goals. Supporting innovation across these domains is difficult for state and local governments due to limited technical staff, procurement challenges, and poor incentives and mechanisms to develop and scale creative solutions. Civic research is a collaborative process for addressing public priorities and improving communities by connecting technical experts to policymakers and civic partners, creating a platform for evidence-based, research-informed action. This process relies on partnerships among universities, state and local agencies, and community organizations, and has proven successful in communities nationwide. This paper recommends seven actions the next administration can take to advance civic research nationwide.

Ask your Congressman About Science

The Federation of American Scientists has joined 16 prominent scientific and engineering groups to ask all Congressional candidates seven questions on the science and technology policies that affect all of our lives.

The November election will be a critical moment for science and technology policy in the United States. Voters must know where the candidates stand on issues such as climate change, the environment, and soaring energy prices.

Innovation 2008 is a voter education initiative from Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) to make science and technology a prominent part of the 2008 elections. Ask your candidates today!

For more information please visit: http://sharp.sefora.org/innovation2008/.