exemplary civic science: the CAFEH project

Highways produce very fine particles as pollutants. These particles concentrate close to the roads and are seriously dangerous for the people who live in range.

Neighborhood activists who were concerned about pollution from I-93 (which cuts through Somerville, Boston’s Chinatown, and Dorchester in our metro area) approached my colleagues at the Tufts University School of Medicine to study the problem. That began an elaborate, multi-year collaboration called CAFEH, the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health Study.

As an example of the scientific work, an especially equipped RV drove a fixed route close to and then away from I-93, collecting air samples for more than 50 days. Individuals both close to and further from the highway were interviewed in their homes (in many languages) and asked for blood samples. The resulting dataset showed conclusively that highway exposure is dangerous. In subsequent stages, the CAFEH team has been exploring strategies for mitigating these effects, including new filtration units.

This was civic science because neighborhood activists identified the topic and the hypotheses. They also played an essential role in recruiting human subjects. They were at the table throughout the project, deliberating about essentially normative or political questions. (For instance, would it be better not to build housing near highways at all, or would that give up on valid objectives, such as affordable housing and urban density?) The project built strong partnerships among the university, community organizations, local elected officials, and even developers, some of whom are now actively committed to filtration. Those are all signs of civic work or, in Albert Dzur’s terms, “democratic professionalism.”

At a public event on CAFEH today, I said that Tisch College has been proud to support the project throughout. We are not experts on pollution, health, or urban planning. We are a college of “citizenship and public service.” We recognize that institutions like Tufts, the NIH and EPA (which contributed funds to this study), and science writ large are powerful. Their power leaves ordinary citizens feeling marginalized. Thus to strengthen our democracy and civic life, we must make science more democratic. But how to do that? Not by asking laypeople to vote on whether ultrafine particles cause cardiovascular disease or by erasing the distinction between science and lay knowledge. The best way is the kind of painstaking collaboration that CAFEH exemplifies. Scientists really had to learn communities’ needs, values, and interests. And laypeople really had to learn the science of air pollution. They held each other accountable for demanding work. Greatly expanding the scale and scope of such projects seems to me one path to civic renewal in America.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.