Share the Power

In Street Science, Corburn deftly illustrates how the “technocratic” model of doing science in the public sphere fails the public and also often falls short of producing “usable knowledge.”  Corburn asserts that a big part of the problem is the power dynamic between the scientist and the public.  Our class discussion yesterday raised similar issues regarding the distribution of power and decision making.  These presentations piqued my interest and reminded me of two arenas where I’ve heard or seen this concept advanced before, which I think we can learn from.

In some fields at least, I think it is possible to conceive of the relationship between academia and the engineering consultant/practitioner as another level of the scientist-public dynamic that we discussed today.  It is easy as a practitioner to become disillusioned with the type and quality of research that is performed by our universities.  Research is too often so far afield from the problems and difficulties faced by the working engineer.  This is easily attested to by paging through many journals. This is not to say that knowledge isn’t pushed forward when we think outside the box. However, the funding structures and decisions about what research to pursue are often made with little input from the practicing world.  A good example of how to break this paradigm exists in the geotechnical program at VT.  We host the Center for Geotechnical Practice and Research (CGPR), which is a partnership between private consulting firms and the department.  This center funds multiple research projects each year.  Key to our discussion here, the funding decisions are made at yearly meetings between the practitioners and professors where the need and merit of various topics are discussed.  This is a simple, yet powerful, model of sharing power in academics, not to mention a great way to fund grad students.

A second and more closely related parallel springs from my experience with the course GRAD 5114 – Contemporary Pedagogy offered by the Graduate School at VT.  As anyone who has taken it knows, the course revolves around the concept of learner-centered teaching.  This course challenges the traditional approach to education, in which the teacher is seen as superior and the bearer of all knowledge, while the student is disinterested, ignorant, and an empty vessel to pour knowledge into.  These descriptions of the teacher and student are much the same as those used by the deficit model of scientist-public interactions.  Learned-centered teaching breaks these notions, showing that students have much to contribute to the education process, if given the agency to do so.  They learn much more when allowed to share responsibility for their learning with the teacher.  This is the same concept as the public contributing to science/research through their knowledge.  I could keep drawing parallels but would prefer to end by observing that much of the advice given to teachers trying learner-centered methods is applicable to “street science” as well.  This might include:

  • Involving the public/students in the work might be messy or unpredictable.
  • You must be willing to learn from or with them.
  • Expect resistance, both from the public/students and from other scientists/teachers.  People often don’t like new things.
  • Keep trying.  The rewards are worth the difficulties.

2 thoughts on “Share the Power

  1. An excellent title for the issues you raise. Great work on the astute connections that you draw. You are right. Indeed, traditional forms of expertise (whether in teaching or medicine or science and engineering) are built and depend on hierarchies of knowledge. Expert knowledge “counts” more than all other types of knowledge, and other types of knowledge are presumed by definition inferior. Unfortunately, this construction, as powerful and influential as it has been, has at times done a disservice not only to “non-experts” (students, patients, communities affected by environmental contamination, etc.) but also to experts themselves. Harry Boyte ( has written a wonderful piece about this problem titled “Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert” ( He argues that “experts” in the traditional sense of the term, as well as the institutions that house them, quickly lose their community roots, and end up producing knowledge that is detached from real world problems and alienating to the public. He also mentions a relatively new movement called “Imagining America” that aims to disrupt the rigid boundaries between society and academia, scholarship and civic action. This movement has made a call for a “Civic Science” in order “to catalyze an international intellectual movement founded in an understanding of the irreducibly plural nature of knowledge making.” All very exciting stuff!

  2. What a great idea conceptually connecting student centered learning and novel approaches to “grounded” research. So much research modern research is completely irrelevant and seems designed to chase buzzwords or generate publications that hardly anyone will read. The unique approach you described in geotech is a great way to collaborate and generate exciting and practical ideas for research. Students involved in these projects can be confident that they are generating the answers to practical questions needed by multiple stakeholders. Must be easy motivated! Thanks for sharing these insights.

Leave a Reply