Using the Vision of Community Engagement to Broaden the Tunnel Vision of Research Myopia

By Jeff F. Trahair.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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University-based biological and health science research must comply with national codes and standards. In Australia, these standards direct that research must, first and foremost, be of benefit to the community. Thus, asking questions, investigating, and providing answers are directed to community wellbeing. Academic scientists often only see this pursuit via a traditional role and voice of ‘the expert’, who knows what is wrong, why, and how to fix it. This instrumental and mechanistic view of the operation of science harms the community since it, of necessity, objectifies the community (human, non-human and environment) as a subject for study, being both participant and beneficiary. Because of this, the ethical review process aims to ensure that research seeks genuinely beneficial outcomes and at the same time protects the community against the harms of being considered mere means. As a university academic, I have taught an ethics course (“Ethics, Science and Society”) to science and health science students for over 12 years. The course aims to provide practical competence in ethical reasoning, with relevant topical issues as its context and content. However, because of my experience as an active teacher and learner, a researcher, and a keenly motivated community volunteer, I have come to realize that using the prism of values and morality as a foundation for knowledge generation, as well as (familiar) modern scientific pragmatism, engages and invigorates critical enquiry, and development of the students. An important element to achieve this has been to invite community engagement into the syllabus, and use narrative and witness to support moral imagination alongside conventional reasoning skills. Each of the topic areas of this ethics course has an invited community participant. I have found students become more engaged with the topic areas, and aware of their own learning and development, when these invited volunteer presenters are able to ‘tell their stories’ in the relevant context of their topic/specialization. In my experience, I have found that this is not a routine skill- most expert scientists can easily speak with passion and conviction about the intellectual pursuit involved in their quest for producing knowledge. Very few, however, are able to contextualize their quest within the paradigm of service to the community. I have found a key element in the credentials of an invited speaker to exemplify science-serving-the-community is an appreciation and will to ‘make a difference’, for our future citizens. While it is easily seen that a specialist may view their expert knowledge as the way this difference is being achieved, I think it is the very witness of the person themselves, especially as a motivated volunteer, which is the key element. After all, text books are expert sources of knowledge, but they cannot convey the human presence of an individual, as teacher, and witness of the community, who are themselves strongly motivated by altruism. I think this presence and narrative is the reason such experiential rich classes work so well, and lever transformative learning and development in the students. These elements are, of course, some of the same ingredients which are present in student-into-community engagement programs. In short, the vision of community engagement has more to offer than just sending our students into the communities to serve, where the aim is to foster and nurture civic focussed and civic minded future citizens. Community engagement also has the potential to re-position and re-discover, and translate the moral foundations of scientific enquiry. This post modernist potential is well realized when the stories and narratives of respected scientific practitioners reveal a strong connectedness with the communities they are actively serving.

Keywords: Ethics, Community Engagement, Student Learning, Pedagogy, Altruism, Volunteer

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp.101-109. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 313.103KB).

Dr. Jeff F. Trahair

Senior Lecturer, Discipline of Anatomy and Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

I began my career as a research fellow in Cell Biology and moved into a tenured university academic position. For over 15 years, I have been a strongly motivated community volunteer. The modern renaissance of community engagement in the higher education is a trend that exemplifies my own relationship with the community, in service, teaching and learning, and research.