Supporting a New Innovation Ecosystem
A DISCUSSION OFScience Policy From the Ground Up
Read Responses From
It was refreshing and validating to read Melissa Flagg and Arti Garg’s article, “Science Policy From the Ground Up” (Issues, Fall 2021). It’s time to modernize the federal role in the nation’s increasingly decentralized research and development ecosystem and unleash innovation at the local level. As a researcher and environmental justice advocate for over a decade, I have seen the divide between funded and supported research and societal needs. It is deadly.
I’m sure many of us have noticed how innovation and problem-solving has been stifled due to narrow requests for proposals and prioritizing of inventions that can make a profit. We’ve lost touch with the role of science to improve life for all. We’ve locked science away from society and we’ve forgotten the power of problem-solving and community partnerships. As the authors state, this has not only resulted in the United States falling from a position of global scientific leadership, but also in science now trying to desperately play catch up. We are now on defense, when we should have been operating offensively.
As Flagg and Garg state so eloquently, the federal government must incentivize problem-solving science that addresses the needs of communities at the local and regional levels. Through my experience, communities are keenly aware of the problems they face and have valid ideas on what needs to be done to address these issues. However, instead of partnering with our neighbors, the scientific community goes into communities expecting gratitude for work they did not ask us to do and work that doesn’t really help them.
The authors clearly lay out the negative societal impacts of a centralized federal funding system that does not embrace problem-solving or community participation. As someone who has a research-centered nonprofit, I can attest that I must often partner with local universities to seek research funding. This can be difficult because academia has also lost touch with community and problem-solving. Research is now often used to promote and market the academy.
It is powerful to see Flagg and Garg openly uplift the need to have community voices involved in the earliest stages of research, including asking potential research questions. We have successfully secluded science from society and now we wonder why we often struggle with public trust. We are seeing the results play out in real time as the scientific community struggles to combat misinformation about climate change and COVID-19.
At a basic level, Flagg and Garg are also making an argument for better spending and increased return on investment. It is time to try something new. Lives are at stake.
Monica E. Unseld
Founder and Executive Director
Melissa Flagg and Arti Garg’s fantastic article raises a foundational question: How can we ensure that science solves highly localized problems? In response, the authors highlight the need for federal research and development investment that incentivizes more collaboration between scientists and nonscientists to “articulate, understand, prioritize, and support a broader range of questions and problems.”
I agree with the authors that more collaboration like this is an important goal for building a locally rooted science agenda. Here I want to highlight how, in addition to posing the usual challenges associated with policy reform, achieving this goal presents an entire other set of unique challenges. The reason is because it requires that scientists and nonscientists—people with diverse forms of knowledge, expertise, and lived experience who are typically strangers—feel comfortable engaging in collaborative exchange with each other.
In other words, it requires relationality—that scientists and nonscientists feel comfortable relating to each other and also expect that others will relate to them in ways that they would like. This is nontrivial, even when other costly institutional barriers to collaboration are lifted.
To see why, consider the following example. In 2017, Don Green, Jake Bowers, and I launched a LinkedIn-style online platform called research4impact, in which scientists and nonprofit practitioners could build profiles and then reach out to each other to engage on topics of mutual interest. At one level, the initial response was a huge success—388 people took the time to build profiles within the first 10 months. However, during that time only seven (!) initiated contact with someone else in the network.
When I conducted interviews with several scientists and practitioners who had built profiles yet not reached out, I largely heard concerns about relationality. They were concerned about whether the other person would really want to interact with them, they were unsure about how to start the conversation, they were uncertain about what was appropriate and inappropriate to say, they were concerned about what kinds of expectations the other person might have, and so on. Indeed, it wasn’t until research4impact abandoned the online platform model and implemented intentional, hands-on matchmaking that things really took off.
Although people use relational concerns to explain their behavior after the fact, they are not always able to articulate these concerns in advance, nor allay others’ concerns. That’s why realizing the goal of more collaboration as a key part of “science policy from the ground up” requires a three-pronged approach: raising awareness about relationality, giving scientists and nonscientists specific language for expressing relational concerns, and making sure that our science policy values facilitators, translators, and matchmakers more than it often does now.
Adam Seth Levine
SNF Agora Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health