Expanding participation in science and technology policy through civil society partnerships

November 4, 2021
A grant from the Ford Foundation will facilitate consultation, research, and implementation solutions with community organizations to promote science and technology for the public good. 

Technology has the power to transform lives for the better but its limitations are becoming more visible, from how algorithms can reinforce and amplify social biases to the impacts of polluting industries on surrounding communities. Meanwhile, technologies that seem to serve the public interest--such as renewable energy or vaccines and other pharmaceuticals--are often inaccessible to those who need them most. Bringing communities into the earliest stages of development of science, technology, and related policies can help maximize societal benefits and minimize harms.

To that end, the University of Michigan’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program (STPP), located in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, has been awarded a $400,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to support STPP’s efforts to bring communities into conversations about emerging technology and science. 

Through this grant, STPP will advance its developing relationships with civil society groups and policymakers concerned with technology, science, equity, and society, both at the national level and locally in the Detroit and Flint areas as well as Ann Arbor’s home of Washtenaw County. 

Founded in 2006, the STPP program is an interdisciplinary research, education, and public and policy engagement center that aims to bring together expertise from engineers, scientists, social scientists, policymakers, civil society advocates, and members of marginalized communities to ensure that technology and science are designed and governed to serve the public good.  

Shobita Parthasarathy, STPP director, notes that developing partnerships with communities of practice is crucial to the program's objectives. “We have two primary goals: we want civil society concerns to play a more significant role in shaping the development and regulation of science and technology, and we want to provide strategic expertise and connections to support the activities of community organizations. We hope our work will produce evidence-based and generalizable understandings of how science and technology can reflect and reinforce inequalities, as well as best practices for ensuring that technical interventions are more equitable and just.”

Ford School Dean Michael Barr says, “This core support will bolster STPP’s innovative efforts to center equity and justice, and particularly the considerations of historically marginalized communities, in discussions about technology and technology policy. These partnerships can have a real impact both locally and nationally.”

The Technology and Society program at the Ford Foundation seeks to advance equitable and more inclusive digital spaces and systems. Michael Brennan, Program Officer, says, “University of Michigan’s STPP Program can play a crucial role in integrating and amplifying the role of community voices in conversations about emerging tech today, while also supporting community organizations in developing the tools to influence these discussions for the long term. Social justice groups often don’t have access to expertise about the ways new technologies can reflect and reinforce structural and racial inequalities. At the same time, technology research programs often lack the voice and participation of communities who are most affected by such technologies. Partnerships like this can alleviate that gap.” 

These partnerships will also benefit engineers and scientists, who can learn directly from social scientists and affected communities and develop strategies to build better technologies.

Parthasarathy says, “We hope that our work will empower civil society partners to demand community-driven innovation that centers equity and justice, and produce technologists and policymakers who better understand public values, priorities, and knowledge.