Tamar Schlekat, SETAC Scientific Affairs Manager

Public Science is the multi-faceted term used for science that is conducted within the public domain. What is it and how can it be applied for environmental sciences? Read more to find out.

Public Science is a term that has been around for some time. Surprisingly, it is not used widely within SETAC although it is practiced to some extent within our community. Public Science is the official name of science that is conducted within the public domain. The label encompasses two broad approaches, one based on participatory action research and another based on science outreach. As their names imply, science outreach is where experts engage with non-specialists on scientific issues while participatory research is where scientists conduct their work with participation of non-scientists. What is more, participatory science is often conducted in a public space that is not traditionally where science is expected to facilitate participation.

Public Science in many forms is becoming a trend all around. The desire for public outreach is instigating many events and publications and even inspiring universities to build laboratories in the middle of humanities buildings. Further, participatory action research methods are being used instead of or to supplement traditional scientific inquiry in studies. With that in mind, SETAC scientists will be well served to consider increased use of Public Science approaches.

As far as science outreach is concerned, we are all quite familiar with the concept. As a matter of fact, I would bet that most scientists have participated in their fair share of science outreach demonstrations at science fairs, festivals and libraries. What may be more intriguing in the Public Science domain to environmental scientists is the concept of participatory research. It overlaps with citizen science; however, it is much broader. Clearly, public science areas are all interconnected. Citizen science is non-specialists collecting data or samples for specialists to analyze. If the non-specialists assist with study design and analysis, they move into the participatory science realm. If the results are conveyed to other non-specialists, that moves the work into the science outreach sphere.

Participatory science is well suited and arguably essential for research in environmental science. Because participatory action research is carried out with full collaboration with local populations, the knowledge they hold is used as the basis of study. It is because of those inherent characteristics that participatory science brings an unparalleled level of realism to research. Moreover, it seems that participatory science is the more ethical and inclusive approach for many areas of environmental science such as risk assessment, ecosystem services, One Health and resiliency. Even though participatory action research is being practiced to some degree within environmental science research, it would be prudent to make more use of those approaches for the good of all.

For great examples of locals collaborating with scientists, you may want to read Native Knowledge: What Ecologists Are Learning from Indigenous People.

Author’s contact information: tamar.schlekat@setac.org