Mahmud’s work at the ASU Washington Center focuses on making science more democratic and useful. The democratic component leverages a distributed institutional network of academics, educators and analysts for participatory technology assessment (pTA). The useful component engages boundary practitioners at the science and policy interface for reconciling the supply of and demand for scientific information (RSD).
Mahmud is the principal coordinator of Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) – a distributive institutional network that brings together research centers, informal science education centers, citizen science programs and non-partisan policy think tanks to engage citizens on decision-making related to science and technology policy. He led large-scale public deliberation projects on biodiversity, space, climate, and energy to support policy and decision-making at the national and global levels. His current public engagement projects involve Climate Change Resilience, Gene Drives, Driverless Cars, Geoengineering, Internet and Human Gene Editing.
I see Public Engagement (PE) as a tool for making science policy and decision-making more democratic and useful for society as it charts a course in pursuit of equity, justice, freedom, and overall quality of life. Success in public engagement, to me, is related to moving the needle in any of those normative directions. It is context dependent and measured not only in terms of completed tasks and fulfilled objectives but also over time in terms of making continuous and intentional progress towards the stated goals.
Making such progress is difficult because the work proposed needs to be situated in an institutional complex that was built on the premise of a linear model of innovation. Overtly or covertly, this complex continues to perpetuate the knowledge deficit model of public engagement and the myth that benefits from science arrive only at the end of the research and development process. As a practical matter, achieving our public engagement goals required my colleagues and me to be pragmatic, strategic, and proactive to the opening and closing of opportunity windows. We learned that the standard research or educational proposal asking for support for upstream or midstream public engagement is destined for failure because existing funding, research or educational programs are not aligned with such goals. A more comprehensive set of longer-term objectives and operational goals needed to be setup to make progress. Our current focus is on the following six:
- Socializing PE: There is a constant need to articulate the value proposition to the experts, stakeholders, funders and the general public. It is encouraging to see more recent National Academy reports calling for public engagement not be an afterthought, industry executives calling for the need to innovate with the public, and philanthropies launching new fields of public interest technology. However, much work needs to be done to transition from an instrumental to substantive PE.
- Innovating theory and practice of PE: Sometimes the difference between a failure and a success is our ability to learn and adapt. Since we are mostly working in non-idealized and budget constrained situations, we have to perpetually innovate from one opportunity to the next.
- Evaluating outcomes of PE: Project budgets are often so tight that there is little opportunity for evaluation. Evaluation budgets, when available, tend to focus more on the participants and not on the experts, stakeholders or decision-makers.
- Training scholars and practitioners in PE: As opportunities increase, there is a growing need to build diverse and distributed capacity for professional boundary spanners who can build bridges and work with diverse experts and stakeholders.
- Building communities of practice within PE: The goals and objectives of public engagement in science traverse a wide spectrum from understanding (science education) to participating (citizen science) to agenda setting (community science) and policymaking (participatory technology assessment) and there is simultaneous need for differentiation and consolidation.
- Growing the PE network: Public engagement alone may have limited impact, but when linked with science, policy and decision-making, it can achieve better societal outcomes than any of those in isolation. Establishing connections, nodes and branches with other organizations and networks is essential for long term sustainability.