Science of, by and for the people

Everybody knows the stereotypes: scientists so awkward they can’t look you in the eye, so focused on the secret lives of microbes that they can no longer talk with people about everyday issues. But what happens when research might help land-owners and local government officials make better decisions? Or when non-scientists have knowledge that can help scientists ask better questions or under-stand their findings in new ways?

At the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), we are trying to figure out how to connect scientists and non-scientists in a long-term dialogue dedicated to understanding the Southern Appalachian environment and becoming better stewards of it. These are two goals that we think every-body can support whatever their political orientation.

Our work began several years ago, when a couple of social scientists began to study the contribution of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program to environmental organizations in Macon County. The Coweeta LTER is a network of scientists from nearly a dozen universities, and is one of the oldest long-term ecological research programs in the country. It has been centered in Macon County since 1980, conducting cutting edge research in Macon and surrounding counties on how forests and watersheds are affected by climate change and development.

Despite the program’s long presence in the region, the understanding it has produced about Southern Appalachian environments, and its potential to inform local stewardship decisions, the Coweeta LTER is nearly invisible to most citizens. As the director of a local environmental organization said, “even among the environmental community, it always comes up [that] we need this research [but] it doesn’t even occur to people that we should think about Coweeta.”

At the CLP, we think that scientists partnered with citizens generate better scientific knowledge that results in more informed decisions by landowners and local government and non-government officials. Here are the three main ways we’re trying to connect scientists with the public:

Sharing data and research results through this newspaper column and our website This “Science, Public Policy, Community” column began with 30 articles in The Franklin Press and has now expanded to the Smoky Mountain News, Graham Star, and The Highlander. Topics are suggested by residents of Southwestern North Carolina and a large team of Coweeta LTER scientist writes and edits the column to ensure that it reflects the best science in a straightforward and relevant way. Once published, the columns are posted on our web site with additional resources like scientific papers, maps, and other media, and readers are invited to share their comments and reflections. These columns are science for the people.

Promoting collaboration between scientists and decision-makers. We host workshops to connect LTER researchers with local decision-makers (e.g. city councils, resource man-agers, developers, and environmental organizations). First, we look at well-established lessons for what makes collaboration succeed or fail. Then, we work together to identify how researchers can support decision-makers, and how decision-makers can guide researchers toward new and more relevant research questions. The goal is for everyone to leave with new connections and the tools to work together into the future. These workshops are science by the people: scientific research designed in consultation with potential information users.

Facilitating community dialogues to help scientists learn from locals. People in Southern Appalachia—even those who have not lived here for generations—know a lot about ecological and social change. In fact, in other regions non-scientists have been the first to identify important issues like pollution and cancer outbreaks, as well as, the changes in local bird populations and changes in the seasonal timing of when local plants bloom. In our dialogues with community groups, we try to give people a better idea of what the Coweeta LTER does, but most importantly, we listen to locals instead of talking at them. As these conversations unfold, we try to translate knowledge and experience back and forth so that together we can all reflect on how our local environment is changing, what this means, and how we want to respond. We hope these dialogues lead to science for the people: the incorporation of local knowledge into science, and eventually the involvement of citizens in data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

But democratic science requires real community collaboration. That’s why we invite you to join us by reading and discussing these columns, inviting us to hold dialogues with your community or religious groups, and considering whether the organization or agency you’re a part of might benefit from hands-on collaboration with relevant scientists.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: Coweeta Listening Project. The Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. October 25, 2013.