Thoughtful Decisions: The Evolution of the NISE Net Forums

By Larry Bell and Troy LivingstonParticipants in a June 2007 NISE Net forum at the Museum of Science, Boston, ponder the medical applications of nanotechnology. Photo courtesy Museum of Science
From ASTC Dimensions
January/Feburary 2008

Though scientific research may at times appear removed from the daily concerns of life, the development of new technologies based on that research inevitably has societal implications. Decisions about technological development, therefore, require input beyond scientific knowledge, as the authors of Science for All Americans, a 1989 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), pointed out when they wrote that “engineering decisions, whether in designing an airplane bolt or an irrigation system, inevitably involve social and personal values as well as scientific judgments.”1 Technically Speaking, a 2002 report from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), suggested a role for the public in decisions about technology: “In a democratic society, people must be involved in the technological decisions that affect them . . . .”2

Committed to public participation

What does this call for civic engagement with new technologies mean for informal science educators? At the Museum of Science, Boston, it was not until 2002 that we began to take education in technology and engineering as seriously as we do education in science. At the AAAS conference in Boston that year, several of us heard professors from North Carolina State University talk about their experiments with Citizen Consensus Conferences. These public events were modeled on forums conducted by the Danish government to get ordinary citizens’ advice on matters of technology policy.

After the AAAS conference, we asked ourselves if we could develop a similar model, a program that would address technological literacy goals cited by the NAE while incorporating the social and personal values called for by AAAS. One influence on our decision was an article by Jon Turney of University College London, in which he argued that “a host of experiments with consensus conferences, citizens’ juries, (and) deliberative polls . . . all show that people involved in such discussions quickly become adept at quizzing experts, mastering a brief, asking questions, and unmasking political assumptions masquerading as scientific conclusions.”3 Not only do participants become scientifically literate, Turney concluded, but they do so “under conditions in which they decide what they need to know.”

To several of us, this sounded like an interesting parallel to our museums’ interactive exhibits, which allow visitors to explore scientific phenomena and practice inquiry skills. In our new model, it would be interactive programs that would explore the societal implications of new technologies and offer participants the chance to practice decision-making skills. And so we set out to offer museum visitors a means to engage in dialogue and deliberation around emerging technologies.

The NISE Net platform

We soon had an exciting opportunity to experiment with programs that feature dialogue and deliberation. In January 2005, the National Science Foundation (NSF) solicited proposals for a science center collaborative that would focus on informal science education (ISE) approaches to the new field of nanotechnology. The solicitation cited the economic, environmental, social, and ethical dimensions and issues associated with nanotechnology; advanced the need for an informed citizenry; and encouraged the creation of science cafés and other forums that would address its implications and potential consequences.

Partnering with the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) and the Exploratorium, the Museum of Science, Boston, submitted the winning proposal and became lead institution for the new Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network.

NISE Net launched in the fall of 2005. Soon after, we put together a group of five museums to experiment collaboratively with the public forums format. Joining the three original partners in this effort were the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), in Portland, and the Museum of Life and Science (MLS), in Durham, North Carolina.

MLS is located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park region, a hotspot for empty nesters and retirees looking for meaningful learning opportunities. Staff at the museum were already looking for new ways to attract adult audiences to the science center. At their suggestion, the group decided to develop a series of nanoscale science and technology forums that would target adults and encourage them to become more involved with science topics.

NISE Net Forum programs focus on a hot current science topic and typically begin with a question or problem that participants will grapple with during the event. Because a central goal from the start was that participants would engage in dialogue not only on the science itself, but also on its societal and ethical implications, organizers regularly invite social scientists, ethicists, and regulation experts from local universities, as well as nanoscale science and engineering researchers, to join the discussion. After hearing from both kinds of experts, audience members engage panelists and one another in small-group discussions on questions like “Who should decide how much risk is acceptable?” and “What role should the public play in shaping discourse on regulation?” Afterwards, each group reports out on the decisions that were reached.

Programs like these are easy to conduct and relatively inexpensive, and they connect scientists with the public and participants with one another in enjoyable, meaningful ways. Over the past two years, we have formally evaluated 20 forum events developed by our five museums. The majority of participants in all locations reported that they enjoyed the experience, felt more informed as a result, and felt comfortable expressing their opinions. Forum attendees also routinely report that they value the small-group discussions as much as the expert presentations. These are gratifying results for a program designed to reach adults and get them more involved in issues of science policy.

Larry Bell is senior vice president for exhibits and programs at the Museum of Science, Boston, and principal investigator for the NSF-funded Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network. Troy Livingston is vice president for innovation and learning at the Museum of Life and Science, Durham, North Carolina.

1. AAAS, Science for All Americans, 1989, p. 40.
2. National Academy Press, Technically Speaking, 2002, p. 36.
3. The Guardian, “How Greenfield Got It Wrong,” April 17, 2003, story/0,12981,937901,00.html

From the January/February 2008 issue of ASTC Dimensions.

About the image: Participants in a June 2007 NISE Net forum at the Museum of Science, Boston, ponder the medical applications of nanotechnology. Photo courtesy Museum of Science