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AAAS Civic Science Fellow Blake McGhghy Shares Co-created Recommendations for Community Engagement with Science

Graphic of different options/levels of engaging the public about climate change
AAAS Civic Science Fellow Blake McGhghy co-developed recommendations for cultivating community-driven engagement around climate change.
Photo credit: Paula Fry/AAAS

For the past year and a half, AAAS Civic Science Fellow Blake McGhghy explored ways in which science-society relationships develop and can be nurtured to better connect science with social values, local knowledge, and community priorities. Focusing specifically on community engagement with climate, McGhghy studied approaches that lead to more equitable and effective information-sharing and decision-making, providing insights that could be applied to public engagement with science more broadly. 

McGhghy worked with staff at the AAAS Center for Public Engagement, including director Emily Therese Cloyd, program associate Stacey Baker, and former AAAS Chief Communication Officer Tiffany Lohwater, to undertake a landscape study of relationship-building approaches for community climate collaborations. In addition, two groups of advisors, including scholar advisors and community advisors, guided the project through co-creating the research questions and approach, providing feedback on analysis, and finalizing the project’s findings and recommendations.

The landscape study provides in-depth recommendations for three groups of participants (scientists and subject matter experts, funding and institutional partners, and researchers of public engagement with science) on how to cultivate community-driven engagement that honors local priorities and advances meaningful pathways for action.

To ground the analysis in a shared civic context and issue, McGhghy completed case studies of three networks of scientists, community members, and local nonprofits that aim to advance flood resilience and preparedness in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. The case studies offer insights for designing science communication and building relationships with audiences and communities in small towns and rural contexts. Each case highlights the importance of investing in long-term relationships with communities to help overcome expertise barriers and honor community priorities.

McGhghy used a co-creation approach for the case studies project by recruiting advisory groups of scholars, practitioners, and community leaders who advised the project through small group conversations, reviewing drafts of the reports, and one-on-one meetings. Community members, scientists, and nonprofit staff from each of the case studies played active roles in identifying findings and providing iterative feedback to finalize the recommendations that emerged. 

McGhghy and AAAS colleagues facilitated a public forum and listening session on public engagement with flood resilience topics in April 2021. The event fostered cross-sector conversations among community members, scientists, scholars, and community organizations who were involved with the case studies and landscape analysis. The forum also enriched the project’s findings through real-time conversations across fields of research and practice, while furthering relationships among the regional network of groups working on public engagement about flooding.   

“It was important to me that this civic science project about co-creation practiced what it preached in terms of using and applying approaches for co-creation with each group of participants. This allowed feedback loops to provide richer shared learning, but also enabled us to be self-reflective about how we facilitate these kinds of conversations that we hope are community-driven,” McGhghy explained.

McGhghy also worked with a number of AAAS staff to develop a framework for planning and evaluating public engagement, to propose “experiments” for future public engagement at AAAS and other organizations, and to inform future training for scientists who are interested in engaging communities to advance locally relevant solutions to a variety of societal challenges. McGhghy’s work – and future experiments that AAAS and other organizations might take on – will help define ways to build, maintain, and repair relationships between scientific communities and broader civic society; to encourage thoughtful, respectful, and coordinated efforts to connect publics, civic leaders, and scientists; and to improve the ways in which science is used to address societal issues.

McGhghy was part of the inaugural cohort of the Civic Science Fellowship Program, which hosted 15 rising stars in science, media, civic engagement, and social science at science societies, media organizations, academic institutions, and philanthropies, to experiment with new approaches for inclusive science communication and community engagement. McGhghy’s fellowship was funded by grants to AAAS from the Rita Allen Foundation, the Kavli Foundation, and the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

Reflecting on the Fellowship experience, McGhghy said “It was an honor to learn directly from so many local environmental leaders and their collaborators. The Fellowship and my experiences with AAAS have inspired hope and provided actionable pathways for facilitating stronger connections across boundaries of research, practice, and civil society to elevate community priorities, values, and knowledge at the many interfaces of science and society.”