Community science collaborations that draw upon the expertise of both community members and volunteer scientists can help advance community priorities and make science more accessible to all, said panelists at a recent webinar on one such collaboration in New Orleans.
“Community Science – Local Knowledge and Scientific Tools Joining Forces to Document Urban Health Hazards,” hosted by the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, was the most recent installment in a series that has covered such diverse topics as the use of data in humanitarian relief and the importance of equity in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The May 4 webinar brought together principal collaborators in an effort to document the negative health effects of a freeway running through a New Orleans neighborhood – with the ultimate goal of removing the expressway. The AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program serves as the Secretariat for the Coalition.
“When community leaders and scientists work together using science and doing science to advance a community priority and to contribute back to the scientific enterprise, it has enormous benefits to science and communities,” said Raj Pandya, who leads the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, a project that matches communities with volunteer scientists to help them advance their goals. The exchange functions much like the AAAS On-Call Scientists network, which the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program oversees to connect more than 1,500 scientists, engineers and health professionals interested in volunteering their skills and knowledge with human rights organizations in need of technical expertise.
The Thriving Earth Exchange connected neighborhood coalition the Claiborne Avenue Alliance with researchers at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health – a step that the alliance pursued to continue raising awareness of the negative impacts of the I-10 elevated highway and to advocate for change in their community. The collaboration also included Public Lab, a nonprofit that pursues justice through community science and open technology, and fourth grade students from Phillis Wheatley Community School in New Orleans.
Scientists and community members worked together to come up with a plan for documenting hazards, said Adrienne Katner, an assistant professor in environmental and occupational health at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center/School of Public Health.
The fourth graders learned how to collect air samples and document noise levels, and they also identified exposure pathways, documenting places like parks, schools and daycares and their proximity to the interstate, Katner said.
Panelists emphasized the importance of local knowledge in documenting the impacts of the highway. Amy Stelly, an artist, designer, planner, teacher and activist with the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, noted that the poorly maintained highway has caused runoff to flood their streets and sidewalks for more than a week after it rains. And the highway is not simply an “environmental menace,” Stelly said. The presence of the highway has wiped out more than 100 businesses and harmed “a thriving, Black-owned economy,” she said.
The collaborators also looked at available data on pollution levels from other researchers, finding higher-than-expected levels of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, said Katner. They also summarized and translated that information to share with community members and local decisionmakers – reflecting the project’s goal to “make science accessible to all and involve citizens who normally would not be included in those discussions,” said Stelly.
The group presented their findings in 2019 to the city council’s transportation committee with little further movement, but recently the Claiborne Avenue Alliance was highlighted by President Biden in his infrastructure rollout.
“Community science gave us the foundation to enter into the conversations with the federal government,” said Stelly.
Panelists emphasized the necessity of respectful collaboration and the many benefits of community science.
Mimi Spahn Sattler, education manager at Public Lab, said, “We’re really rooted in the belief that the best ideas and solutions come from collaborations between on-the-ground communities with deep knowledge of local issues and that those communities can work in close equitable and sustainable partnerships with networks that can bring skills, technology, science and technology to bear.”
Pandya lauded the “emergence of a new way of doing science that’s anchored in collaboration with community groups that’s based on mutual respect and mutual learning,” noting that it can expand public trust and participation in science, advance equity and translate science into action.
Stelly hopes that these collaborative efforts can boost further awareness and understanding of the importance of infrastructure on public health and can lead the way for the removal of the highway through the North Claiborne Avenue area.
Said Stelly, “I think that’s the only way to justly repair the corridor, repair the economy and, of course, repair the lives that were so devastated by the installation of the interstate.”