Public Forums Help Us Explore What We Care About

To care about democracy is to care about conversations on shared and differing values. A recent public forum shows why.

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Michelle and I are big supporters of democratic innovations in science and technology governance. But as academics, we can get a little caught up in the nuances of participatory events. A recent public forum at the Museum of Science, Boston reminded me of the power of conversation.

The forum, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and held on June 11th, brought ~60 members of the public and a handful of facilitators and staff from the Museum together to discuss the challenges of sea level rise and extreme precipitation in the Boston area. I observed the forum, occasionally helping facilitators with technical issues and keeping conversations on track. (Full disclosure, I’m part of the planning team for this forum and others). A nice summary of the forum is available here and I posted photos and updates to my twitter. Rather than rehash the importance of public input in science-related decision-making or how the forum could be improved, I thought I’d reflect a bit on the conversations I heard. To care about democracy is to care about conversations on shared and differing values. This forum provides a nice example of why.

The conversations at each table impressed me. Participants, who broadly represented the Boston area’s demographics, took the topic seriously even as they talked about fictionalized communities with names like Rivertown. The Museum of Science worked hard to recruit participants who otherwise might not have the opportunity to contribute to these policy discussions. While some environmental groups were represented, they made up only a small portion of the audience. Participants drew on their own experiences with flooding, their own assessments of current development in flood-prone areas, and their knowledge of what strategies have worked elsewhere. They argued their points using data available to them (each table had a computer that visualized the potential impacts of policy choices) and in terms of who might be affected and how. Most encouraging to me, some participants recognized that their differences in opinion were not based on who had found the ‘right’ answer for dealing with sea level rise or extreme precipitation. Rather, they viewed their different preferences as related to what they valued. Some valued saving as much land as possible from the impacts of sea level rise. Others were concerned about key infrastructure like power plants. Yet others focused on impacts to those who lived on or made a living on the coast. Participants acknowledged other perspectives and ideas, saying things like, “I see where you’re coming from,” but still laid out what was important to them.

At a time in which every major public decision boils down to esoteric assessments of impacts far beyond the ability of most of us to comprehend, I found the tone of the forum’s conversations refreshing. While data was available to participants, the conversation still centered on something we can all relate to: what we care about.

The forum was the first of eight to take place across the country. Stay tuned over the next few months for updates and check out ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO) and the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network for more forum news. For another cool case study, check out the results of the public forum on NASA’s Asteroid Initiative.

– Nich Weller

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