Science for Georgia: Connecting People with Science to Build Networks of Trust

Author: Brandy Wade, Louis Kiphen and Amy Sharma

Editor: A. Hannah Spadafora; Annthony Duffey

Our Background:

Science for Georgia was born in the wake of the March for Science. After the signs were folded away and most of the marchers vacated the area, a question remained for a small group of us: “How can we make sure scientists better serve Georgia?” This question guided us, and we elected to organize a group committed to keeping science a non-partisan tool to be used for the common good. The aim of the movement is to maintain the momentum of the science marches; we want to tap into community enthusiasm with the goal of educating public audiences, and to move our following from it’s current audience of about 15,000 people on our partner network and social media lists--mainly located in and around Atlanta--to people in every corner of the state by 2025. For now, our small group of scientists and science fans run the show out of Atlanta--a team composed of a four-person board of directors and six volunteers sharing a dream to work with every Georgian to create a strong science network that improves the ecosystem and education of our state.

Our Work:

Our two major pillars of action are outreach and in-reach events. Outreach programs bring science to the community in an easily understood and accessible way. Our outreach events include: Science Tales & Trails (Atlanta and Athens), Atlanta Science Tavern, and The Georgia Science Wiki project (under development). Science Tales & Trails is an outdoor social learning journey where the public meets and discusses scientific topics with a local expert in a relevant science field. The invited scientist describes their research in down to earth language and focuses on the significance the topic holds for our communities and the public at large. The Atlanta Science Tavern group, on the other hand, is held at a local pub where the scientist gives a formal presentation with engaging slides and a question-answer session for the attendees. So far, these events have featured specialist talks on medical ethnobotany, amphibian conservation, neurobiology, geology and paleontology, environmental health, and watershed conservation. Lastly, the Georgia Science Wiki project is an in-development project featuring a searchable database of high-quality recordings of expert-led scientific subject demonstrations as well as comprehensive lists of STEM organizations operating in Georgia.

In-reach programs are scientist-attended events geared towards giving specialists the tools to better communicate with the public, policy makers, and others across related disciplines. In-reach programs include: a networking event for STEM professionals, organizations, and charities (SciToberFest) as well as a science communication workshop that offers formal training to STEM professionals in communicating knowledge from their discipline to lay audiences. Further, each year we select and focus on one of the partner organizations that we work directly with to amplify their message, spread their word, and help them reach their goals; in 2019, we promoted the profile of the Georgia Chief Science Officers program and gave participating student leaders the chance to speak directly to the community. With in-reach events we are working to create a robust network of non-profits, professional organizations, businesses, and educational groups. This network will be used to forge connections, stimulate collaboration, and to support the cross-discipline communication necessary in the STEM community to better serve the public and bridge the divide between the science and non-science community.

Earning the Trust of Georgia

The prime issue our organization tackles is the fundamental disconnect between the scientific community and the public it serves. At Science for Georgia, our three goals to fix this disconnect are to: (1) improve communication from scientists to the public, (2) increase the public’s engagement with science and scientists, and (3) advocate for the responsible use of science in public policy. Evidence suggests Science for Georgia has a long way to go to accomplish this mission. While about 86% of American adults say they have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists, only 37% of American adults believe that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, only 28% believe it’s safe to consume food grown with pesticides, and only 50% believe that climate change is caused by human activity. This demonstrates that professed confidence in scientists does not translate to trust in scientific consensus on environmental, health, and social issues.

Some historical research cases such as the Tuskegee Incident (1932-1972), and the story of Henrietta Lacks (1951) are disheartening examples of previous failures of science. During the Tuskegee Incident, health officials observed the effects of syphilis on the deterioration of the human body in populations of black men who were not informed of their condition (and thus were not given vital information to protect their spouses, lovers, and children, either.) Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died of cervical cancer, but who had her cells live on in experiments that led to the polio vaccine and other financially lucrative medical breakthroughs—for decades, without her or her family being informed, giving permission, or receiving renumeration. These specific events demonstrate marginalized communities being denied rights to fully informed disclosure in scientific research, leading to understandable mistrust in the field.

These missteps also extend into the technology sector. Whether it’s difficulties with facial recognition, algorithms, job recruiting programs, or software used to determine bail for criminals, artificial intelligence technology has repeatedly been found to be biased. These issues widely reflect the lack of diversity in the technology sphere; when people of color and women are not part of developing and vetting technology, it’s built to work against them.

Perhaps due to these events, individual levels of trust in the methods and findings of science-driven studies vary among racial demographics. While statistics are fairly disheartening across all groups, a recent study has shown that African Americans (71%) and Hispanic Americans (63%) are far more likely to view research misconduct as a moderately high problem compared to Caucasian Americans (43%). Strides have been made to correct these historical failures, such as the Privacy Act of 1974, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA. More recently, efforts like the All of Us Research Study are being made to include both people of color and women in large scale genetic studies where they have historically been left out.

Despite these promising efforts, the science community still has much work ahead in building trust. For example, this recent research paper identified “lack of knowledge about clinical trials and biobanks; limited specific information and access to participation, trust and privacy concerns” as barriers to biobanking/clinical trial participation for non-white communities, women, and rural populations (Davis et. Al 2019.) This same research concluded that to facilitate fully informed research participation, community input is essential to crafting communications about clinical trials and biobank studies. Further conclusions include the need for physicians to be culturally informed, community-connected, and to have field experience in clinics for low-income and minority populations—as well as for further studies on transportation barriers that may prevent individuals from getting needed help. It’s important that people from diverse communities participate in research so that devices and medications are as safe as possible for all individuals who require them-- as well as for scientists and science lovers from diverse backgrounds to participate in Science For Georgia in our growing expansion. It is for this reason that a central component to the mission of Science for Georgia is inclusivity. To improve communication between scientists and the public is to create a connected, vibrant, and sustainable science community woven into the fabric of Georgia. Diversity must be part of the state’s science network to ensure technology and scientific development addresses the needs of women and non-white communities. Indeed, it is only by making science trustworthy, accessible, and inclusive that it can become a strong foundation for Georgia's prosperity.

To get involved with Science For Georgia or to find more information on our organization, as well as ways to support the cause of scientific literacy and goals of building a community where scientists and non-scientists work together for the common good of our state, you can find more information by visiting:

Note that parts of this article are concurrently published on the website.

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Brandy Wade

Brandy graduated from Emory University with a PhD in Genetics and Molecular Biology and a love for time spent in the lab, focused on the Rube Goldberg-like molecular machinery that makes us work. She is passionate about science outreach and taking technology from the research lab to the clinics where it best helps people. Brandy helped found Science for Georgia with the hope of encouraging communication between scientists and policy makers--with the belief that policy built on unbiased evidence is the foundation for effective changes made in the public interest.

Louis Kiphen

Louis Kiphen is a graduate of the University of Texas with a degree in Electrical Engineering. His past experience includes systems engineering in both the private sector and in civil service with the U.S. Air Force. He is currently a Software Design Engineer at SAP, engaged in service innovation and data science projects. He helped found Science for Georgia to improve awareness of the historic improvements in quality of life driven by evidence-based policy, to highlight where policy makers have fallen short, and to create discussions on how to implement better evidence-based policy.

Amy Sharma

Amy Sharma is a biomedical engineer, with a PhD in radiation physics. Amy has had a passion for science education and outreach her entire career, from building summer STEM camps at Duke to organizing outreach for WIE Atlanta and ACSF Perth. She has been an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, a deputy chief scientist and big data branch head at Georgia Tech Research Institute, and a product manager at several Atlanta start-ups.

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