Community-based Participatory Science is Changing the Way Research Happens—and What Happens Next

Judy Robinson at The Equation: “…Whereas in the past the public seemed content to hear about scientific progress from lab-coat-clad researchers on private crusades to advance their field, now people want science to improve their lives directly. They want progress faster, and a more democratic, participatory role in deciding what needs to change and which research questions will fuel a movement for those changes….

Coming Clean is a network of community, state, national and technical organizations focused on environmental health and justice. Often we’ve been at the forefront of community-based participatory science efforts to support healthier environments, less toxic products, and a more just and equitable society: all issues that deeply matter to the non-expert public.

….For instance, with environmental justice advocacy organizations in the lead, residents of low-income, minority communities collected products at neighborhood dollar stores to see what unnecessary and dangerous chemical exposures could occur as a result of product purchases. In laboratory results we found over 80% of the products tested contained toxic chemicals at potentially hazardous levels (as documented in our report; “A Day Late and a Dollar Short”). That information, along with their organizing around it, has since attracted over 146,700 people to support the nationalCampaign for Healthier Solutions. That’s local science at work.

Documented in Coming Clean’s report; “Warning Signs: Toxic Pollution Identified at Oil and Gas Development Sites and in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health, 38% of the samples collected by community volunteers contained concentrations of volatile compounds exceeding federal standards for health risks, some at levels thousands of times higher than what federal health and environmental agencies consider to be “safe.” Seven air samples from Wyoming contained hydrogen sulfide at levels between two and 660 times the concentration that is immediately dangerous to human life. Beyond the astonishing numbers, the research helped educate and engage the public on the problem and solutions communities seek, filled critical gaps in our understanding of the threat oil and gas development poses to public health, and was among the reasons cited in Governor Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking in New York State.

For Coming Clean and others across the country, this kind of community-based participatory science is changing the way science is conducted and, most importantly, what comes after the data collection and analysis is complete. In both the dollar store research and the oil and gas science, the effect of the science was to strengthen existing organizing campaigns for community-based solutions. The “good old days” when we waited for scientific proof to change the world are over, if they ever existed. Now science and citizen organizing together are changing the rules of the game, the outcome, and who gets to play….(More)”