Astonishing changes in science and technology regularly dominate the national conversation. Breakthroughs in gene editing give scientists the ability to manipulate the building blocks of life, opening up enormous questions about risk, ethics, and scientific governance. Human activity is altering the Earth’s atmosphere in unpredictable ways, leading to calls for a radical shift in the global energy system or even direct intervention in the climate through geoengineering. Scientific luminaries warn that artificial intelligence could advance beyond our ability to control it, posing a threat to human existence.
Decisions about how to manage or confront these issues affect us all. Yet the perspectives, interests, and values of lay citizens are too often left out of scientific and technological debates. Scientists and other experts decide how to frame and address important matters early on, frequently viewing them as purely technical questions. This upstream lack of transparency and inclusion damages the scientific enterprise’s legitimacy and often misses issues of vital concern to citizens—which, as climate change and genetically modified organisms illustrate, can become hugely controversial later on. Changing this dynamic requires informing and deliberating with the otherwise-disengaged public early and often, providing decision support and diverse perspectives for the significant choices confronting society.
The Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network brings together academic research, informal science education, citizen science programs, and non-partisan policy analysis to engage citizens. ECAST creates peer-to-peer deliberations to inform citizens about and solicit their input on science and technology policy issues, in an effort to more fully inform decision-making. Formally launched in April 2010, ECAST has conducted large-scale public deliberations in the United States on policy issues related to biodiversity, space missions, and climate and energy.