After a half-year intermission, on Friday, Nov. 13, the University of Pittsburgh’s Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Information Ecosystems: Creating Data (and Absence) from the Quantitative to the Digital Age welcomed Melissa L. Finucane, senior social and behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation in Pittsburgh. With a portfolio of work that includes studying human reaction to climate change and other disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Finucane is interested in how people perceive risk, and her discussion of “use-inspired science” in that context seemed especially relevant amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Finucane helped the participants of the Sawyer Seminar, who are faculty and students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University, to rethink the purpose of data’s creation. In this case, Finucane is interested in use-inspired science, which encourages input from communities and stakeholders when formulating research questions.
Orienting research toward use-inspired science, Finucane explained, comes with thinking through research questions and outputs that can provide help to a specific population, whether that it’s in a context of policymaking or in responding to the needs of a community affected by disaster. Finucane’s work with the Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities (CRGC) on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill fits that bill.
The idea behind the CRGC is to find ways to build community resilience in the areas affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The consortium’s work is broken up into four interconnected activities: 1) respond to issues identified within the community; 2) support the community by engaging in dialogue and education; 3) generate data and ideas to look for solutions; 4) be critical of results and think about potential impacts and trade-offs.
To meet this goal, the consortium conducts research with the aim of improving knowledge about the effects of the oil spill, provide evidence to help in strategic planning, and provide information to policymakers.
Use-inspired science “emphasizes coproduction of information: that means the scientists and stakeholders, or end users of the information, work together to come up with the research questions, think through the methodology to collect data, and analyze it,” Finucane explained to me when I interviewed her for an episode of the Information Ecosystems podcast.
Further, use-inspired science is also “very iterative, so instead of just starting with a theory and some hypotheses and going ahead and testing them, we are constantly fine-tuning our questions and approaches and methods,” she continued.
The use-inspired science approach reminds me a bit of solutions journalism, an approach to journalism that emphasizes reporting on people and entities looking for solutions or working to fix a problem, instead – as journalism so often does – focusing on the breakdowns alone. Reporting on breakdowns – whether it’s government corruption, a natural disaster, or economic slowdowns – is important, but often the people trying to fix those things are in plain sight. But because taking a solutions approach may not leave the requisite knot in the stomach, the way “serious” investigative reporting is supposed to, those parts of the story are overlooked. (Ok, ok, full disclosure: I used to be a journalist. Please don’t throw your old vegetables at me.)
Both approaches – use-inspired science and solutions journalism – also harness the knowledge of the local population. In the case of Finucane’s work with the consortium, this includes workshops with stakeholders, including emergency responders and community members who shared their experiences and concerns.
Finucane emphasized that collaboration in our conversation for the podcast, noting, “we are in close partnership – ideally – with our end users from the very beginning.”
As I write this, Covid-19 is exploding like never before in the United States, from rural states to more populated areas; from the southeast to the snowy Mountain West. It’s a disaster that’s hard to describe because it’s so difficult to conceptualize fully – it reaches across the planet, encompassing many communities with many different values and interests. Getting the virus under control, and getting back to normal, though, will require a lot of cooperation and creativity. Use-inspired science is very likely a good place to start.
In that regard, Finucane pointed out that the kinds of supports or interventions that are needed among different populations changes across geography but also across time.
The needs of different demographics “changes from the beginning of the pandemic to being in the middle of it,” she said in our podcast interview. “And as we learn more about the virus and how it’s transmitted and so on, and what protective behaviors work, we can fine-tune our recommendations.”
To that end, Finucane will continue to work on Covid-related research, including how different demographic groups perceive risk and how disinvested communities – those that experience low rates of commercial prosperity – are experiencing the pandemic.
“Covid is front and center for many of us [researchers],” she said.
Briana Wipf is a third-year PhD student in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies medieval literature and digital humanities. If you’re going to throw vegetables at her for being a journalist, she will thank you for reading and then make a salad. Follow her on Twitter @Briana_Wipf.