In our current crises of health inequity, the digital divide, misinformation, and climate change denial, we have seen the dire consequences when STEM is approached separately from society, equity, and community. It has become apparent that we cannot build trust during a crisis and yet, equally as apparent, is how deeply public trust can make or break policy implementation.

The inaccessibility of science and innovation among marginalized communities has downstream impacts of alienation from, mistrust of, and uncomfortability with adopting new research and technology. Furthermore, it means that new research and technology are often missing important perspectives and opportunities for broad relevance, and it is well known that the most outstanding innovation emerges from diverse groups. These extraordinary years through the pandemic and digital shift have delivered a damning testimony of the troubling ways science and technology have been positioned in our society.

The importance of community-level initiatives

Investments in science have largely focused on the types of innovation that are produced in university research labs, through industry R&D, and in high-profile board meetings. Despite this, community-level innovation remains integral for science equity, uptake, and relevance. These on-the-ground initiatives establish new models and go on to inform better, more equitable policy, ultimately enriching the science sector as a whole with bottom-up insights. Examples of such initiatives include:

  • Citizen Science – Citizen science initiatives continue to grow in influence all over the world and represent a unique opportunity for communities to engage in and contribute to scientific research. However, uptake is primarily seen in communities that are already engaged in science. More efforts and funding are necessary for this movement to have a larger influence among marginalized communities.
  • Science Outreach and Capacity-Building – Many organizations create and foster equitable access to science and technology outside of traditional spaces and on-the-ground in communities. Initiatives like the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity and the Encouraging Vaccine Confidence program of the Imhotep Legacy Academy were integral in efforts to address vaccine hesitancy and provide important information in Black communities across Toronto and Nova Scotia, respectively, during the height of the pandemic. Outreach organizations and programs such as Visions of Science, Ethọ́s Lab, Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, and the Experiential Learning in Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship Program (ELITE) for Black Youth, work to ensure that youth who are persistently underrepresented in STEM receive access to meaningful opportunities and resources at critical stages of their development.
  • Community-led Innovation – Community-led science innovation places the power and agency of solving significant problems into the hands of communities most affected by them. In this approach, communities are meaningfully involved in defining the questions, conducting research, and developing innovative solutions enriched by lived experience and other ways of knowing. Some poignant examples include Indigenous fire management practices, disability-led assistive technology innovations, and innovation accelerator hubs that move ideas from labs or academia and tailor them for the community.

Community efforts require support at a broader institutional, policy, and systems level

Many have taken on this work out of necessity with promising results, but often experience burnout and undermining by public messaging. Further, while community members are recruited in times of crises to address community impacts, the default alienation from science and technology threatens the effectiveness of their efforts.

To facilitate sustainable community participation and trust in science, substantial and consistent investments are needed in:

  • Education and Informal Learning – To develop broader science literacy, we need effective, relevant, and culturally-affirming science and technology education in the formal school system as well as informal learning opportunities.
  • Workforce Development – Ensuring an adequate pool of professionals that can serve as community-focused science experts and scientifically-trained community champions will require targeted initiatives to connect marginalized students and recent graduates to science and technology career pathways.
  • Accessible Infrastructure – To enable culturally-relevant science participation within communities, it is necessary that science and technology infrastructure is made accessible to community members beyond corporate and institutional scientists exclusively.
  • Funding for Community-led Initiatives – Engaging the broader public in meaningful science and technology opportunities with a focus on marginalized communities will require long-term funding for initiatives led by community champions who are best positioned to deliver these activities.
  • Partners and Collaborators – To strengthen community-led initiatives, it is important to bolster trusted organizations that can provide auxiliary support with capacity, resources, connection, and subject matter expertise. Some examples include ScienceUpFirst, who partners with community groups to tackle misinformation with credible and relevant science, and the African Canadian Services Branch of the Nova Scotia Department of Education, who collaborates with education stakeholders to facilitate access to high quality learning opportunities for African Canadian students across Nova Scotia.

Science culture needs revamping and decision-making needs revising

Interventions that facilitate access and participation are critical, however, access alone is not enough to ensure meaningful engagement of all communities in science. Marginalized communities must see alignment with their experiences and perspectives as well as substantive opportunities to shape and leverage science for the benefit of their communities.

Ensuring communities are honoured and integrated appropriately will require a reorganization of science standards, leadership, and management including:

  • Community Values – Moving away from economic growth and global competitiveness as the primary markers for success and worthwhile investment, towards a prioritization of social and environmental benefits and an ethic of genuine collaboration rather than competition.
  • Community Power in Decision-Making – Incorporating diverse community perspectives and knowledges in central science decision-making (i.e., funding allocations, policy change, governance, data collection and reporting, etc.) in government, industry, and institutions – not simply as advisors but as decision-makers.
  • Community Agency – Ensuring communities having the freedom, authority, and support to direct their own science initiatives and identify science utility in ways that are meaningful for them.

Without a well-integrated, equitable, and ongoing commitment to supporting community efforts, we will not see the end of this crisis, nor will we be better prepared for the next crisis. Additionally, without adequate demonstration that science policy- and decision-making prioritizes communities, anti-science movements will continue to have broad appeal to those left at the margins.