Imagining what the world will be like in a decade or two can feel like flipping through a catalog of dystopian visions rooted in today’s dismaying headlines. Will smartphones make our children depressed and lonely? Are we on the brink of making the world nearly uninhabitable for humans? Will hacking and cyberterrorism lead to real-world warfare? Can bioterrorists use precision gene-editing to kill millions of people? Will technological innovations produce mass unemployment?
That many of these anxieties are connected to scientific advances and technological breakthroughs is no coincidence. The forces of science and technology that drive large parts of today’s economy catalyze vast social changes. Innovations emerge from corporations, universities, and laboratories that are remote from most people’s everyday experiences. Understanding them often requires specialized knowledge and training. And while these innovations can be enormously beneficial, they often come with tradeoffs. For example, social media platforms offer greater connectedness, but they can also allow information to be weaponized as a tool of asymmetric warfare.
It can sometimes feel like professional researchers and technologists are pushing us into a future that may not be one we envision for ourselves and our communities. Technological innovation can feel more like a natural disaster than the result of human decisions if you struggle to make a living or deal with toxic electronics waste. We fear losing control, ceding our agency to algorithms and tech companies and research scientists.
One way to help alleviate some of the concerns is greater public involvement in scientific research and technological innovation—no Ph.D. required. This can happen in several ways—including participating in research projects and collaborating with scientists. It’s an opportunity to combat precisely what makes many people anxious about the future: the lack of agency in how science and technology shape our lives.
Citizen science offers opportunities for people to engage in all sorts of fields, from biology and environmental science to astronomy and physics—whatever your interest might be. As you may have heard about before, there are lots of projects that ask for public help with data collection, for instance by monitoring your local environment or helping NASA document the solar eclipse. But there are also opportunities to take part in research design and prioritization. Participatory assessment of science and technology is a relatively new method of gaining public insight to help make technical and policy decisions. In partnership with the Kettering Foundation, for example, the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology, or ECAST, network is organizing focus groups in which lay citizens can express their concerns about the deployment of self-driving cars in their communities. Patient advocacy groups can influence how medical technologies are developed (or even do the developing themselves) and how research money is spent.
We’ve written before about the need for experts to listen to public perspectives in order to enrich and improve their research, to better align the innovations they produce with social values and needs. But the responsibility runs both ways. Demanding that research programs are responsive to public concerns and that innovations benefit our shared future requires an engaged, critical, scientifically literate citizenry—more Slate readers, basically.
That’ll take some work. According to surveys conducted by the University of Michigan, a little more than one-quarter of American adults are considered scientifically literate, a number that’s remained stagnant for years. Scientific literacy isn’t a prerequisite for engaging on important issues like climate change or genetically modified organisms. But some understanding of scientific issues and methodologies helps you confidently engage with researchers and technologists. And it may inspire you to act on that knowledge by, for example, volunteering in a citizen science project. Understanding how something works, and being familiar with the specialized vocabulary and technical concepts, makes it a little less intimidating.
Knowledge is only part of the equation. To help design the future, you need to share your own expertise, local understanding, or community concerns when invited to do so. The kinds of activities that might help researchers study important topics don’t always receive public support. When Philadelphia water managers needed local volunteers to collect samples to test for lead in the city’s drinking water, fewer than 2 percent of the 8,000 people they contacted completed the sampling process. It’s tempting to push for increased citizen involvement in science and technology as a civic obligation like voting, but U.S. voter turnout isn’t all that impressive. Maybe speaking to self-interest would be more effective.
Greater participation in citizen science and engagement in science and technology decision-making helps you take control of your own future. It can help you discover opportunities in a near-future where some economists predict a workforce “polarized” between well-paying technical jobs and menial work. Although experts are divided over whether innovation in the next decade will displace more jobs than it creates, technological advances will clearly affect workers in fields as varied as transportation, medicine, journalism, and law. This marks a change from the recent past, when it was primarily blue-collar workers in manufacturing who saw their jobs taken by robots or shipped overseas.
Workers of all kinds will need new skills to navigate these economic shifts successfully. The nature of the anticipated changes mean that training in science, technology, engineering, and math may benefit them the most. There has certainly been an effort to emphasize STEM proficiency in primary and secondary education, to ensure that American students are able to meet the needs of the future economy. But technological change is occurring so rapidly that a focus on students leaves today’s workers in the lurch. Truck drivers, accountants, retail employees, editors, telemarketers, and many other professionals may require STEM competencies long before they’re ready to retire.
Worker retraining programs, long the mantra of economists and policymakers for helping technologically displaced workers find new and better-paid employment, are often ineffective, according to a recent U.S. Department of Labor evaluation. And returning to or starting a college degree can be intimidating, if not impossible, for adults who are wary of taking on debt or dropping out of the labor force for a period of time.
Promising new programs are tackling some of these concerns. Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy allows a prospective student to take free introductory-level online courses, paying for the credits earned only when the student is happy with the grade and wants to apply the course toward a degree. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Philadelphia’s Digital On-Ramps platform smooths the process of finding education and training for career advancement by partnering with schools, informal education programs, and employers. Community colleges in Pennsylvania are beginning to take into account real-world experience like job training or participation in citizen science research projects, so that adult learners start out ahead when seeking accreditation.
But many people simply don’t have the resources to explore their interests and concerns. Holding down a job or two, caring for children, making car and house payments, and meeting whatever other demands are placed on you, plus, say, spending a Saturday deliberating climate resiliency options, can be a tall order. As a recent report from the National Academies noted, efforts to democratize the forces of science and technology will have to grapple with “improving the flow of information, braiding financial sources, articulating career pathways, building competency models, and implementing sector strategies.”
But if you can find the time, it’s worth it. We all, as a society, have a stake in making this democratization work in order to distribute the benefits of science and technology as broadly and equitably as possible. Researchers and technologists need input from the public to ensure that they’re working toward the kind of future society wants—and by “the public,” we mean you.