Mahmud Farooque, a researcher and associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University, is a long-standing partner of Missions Publiques. He is dedicated to making participatory technology assessment a valuable tool for public decision-making. Through two projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, he shares his insights and the methods employed to engage a broad audience, fostering the conditions for deliberation on issues that may be contentious or even involve conflicts of interest.
Missions Publiques: The CSPO’s mission, among other things, is to enhance the contribution of science and technology to the pursuit of “equality, justice, freedom, and overall quality of life.” What are its specific missions?
Mahmud Farooque: The CSPO is dedicated to ensuring that decisions about science and technology involve a broad spectrum of voices. We combine the principles of deliberative democracy with a process known as technology assessment. Since 2010, we’ve been actively involved in the ECAST network, collaborating with universities, science education organizations, and policy researchers. ECAST brings together experts, individuals with diverse perspectives, and everyday citizens to evaluate emerging scientific and technological developments. Our objective is to establish participatory technology assessment as a tool to inform public decisions, offering an alternative to purely technical evaluations. Importantly, we don’t seek to replace expertise but to complement it with inclusive public participation in a fair and collaborative manner, integrating a variety of values and perspectives.
Our overarching mission is to seamlessly integrate public engagement into the spheres of science, technology, and policymaking. Our approach involves three key steps: co-defining the problems with the experts, stakeholders and the public, facilitating citizen deliberations, and integrating the results in policy and decision-making. While maintaining these fundamentals, we consistently innovate, testing new approaches in all our projects. Our ultimate goal is to develop criteria for multidirectional deliberative learning, ensuring communities are well-informed. Through our network, we’ve organized in approximately 50 forums across 30 U.S. cities, involving over 3,000 citizens and funded by government and philanthropic agencies.
Missions Publiques: You are currently working on two projects dealing with political and scientific issues with numerous conflicts of interest: nuclear waste disposal and carbon dioxide removal. How are you approaching these projects?
Mahmud Farooque: Nuclear waste has been a longstanding issue. Currently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) is focusing on developing a consolidated interim storage capacity for commercial spent nuclear fuel, which is currently stored at over 70 sites in more than 30 states. The DOE recognizes that a consent-based, community well-being-focused site selection approach prioritizing equity and justice offers the best chance of success. The Department of Energy has selected 13 awardees across the nation to serve as information, engagement, and resource centers to facilitate community discussions and gather feedback on interim spent nuclear fuel storage. ECAST have been selected as an awardee.
The project on carbon removal is different. It comes from recent IPCC reports that we will need negative emissions at the planetary scale to meet our global temperature targets. The challenge however is that there is no demand signal. The aim from government and some private investors concerned about climate change is to demonstrate that this is a growing market with substantial opportunities for different investors, researchers, and engineers to make a significant impact in this field. The Department of Energy has made significant investments to scale emerging technologies and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The methods used in these projects also differ. For nuclear waste, it’s a more gradual process, allowing for voluntary public and community contributions. We are looking for social breakthroughs and innovation. In the case of the carbon elimination project, the pace is much faster, aiming to accelerate and exploit technological breakthroughs and advancements.
"Is the process we are using to make our decisions inclusive and fair? (...) Are we lessening the burden our decisions can have on those that will come after us? To address these types of justice concerns we need different types of citizen engagement.
Researcher and associate director of the CSPO at Arizona State University
Missions Publiques: The primary focus in the nuclear waste project seems to be including the voices of citizens, while in the carbon elimination project, you are more focused on technological experiments… What does this mean in practical terms for the design of the process for the nuclear waste project?
Mahmud Farooque: Indeed, in the case of nuclear waste, the focus is on continual learning and citizen engagement, whereas for carbon dioxide, the objectives are defined from the outset. The scale also differs, with one being national and the other requiring a global dimension to have a real impact on climate change.
For nuclear waste, we wanted to engage a broad audience beyond the areas where waste sites are located. We decided to target 12-18 locations for framing activities, reaching rural and urban communities through partnerships with local policy makers, civic organizations, libraries, educators, and faith networks, emphasis on reaching historically excluded or underserved communities, including indigenous communities.
Our goal is to understand the right way to involve them in an issue that doesn’t directly affect them today. To achieve this, we want to first learn about their hopes and concerns, not only regarding nuclear waste but also energy in general, life, livelihood, and well-being. This understanding will help us frame the second phase of the project, namely, citizen deliberations. Here also, instead of having a single deliberation for all of Arizona, we have decided to host 5 large deliberative forums held across different parts of the state, representing different political, economic, and social communities of interest.
In terms of the format for these deliberations, we are leaving our options open to citizen juries, consensus conferences, or citizen assemblies. The idea is that we’re not just trying to map public value concerning nuclear waste in a volunteering process, but we are also to developing methods and the capacities to have a broader conversation across the identified dimensions. We plan to seize every opportunity for learning about how we can improve engagement by including stories and imaginaries in our deliberations. We plan to generate 4 science fiction stories with original art through a hackathon with writers, artists, experts, and instructional designers. In addition to background information, we plan to use these “stories” to inform the public debates, providing information in an alternative way. We would like to help participants imagine different plausible futures with nuclear waste using humanistic and relatable frames of reference. Our final goal is to evaluate the impact of these design innovations on the quality and outcomes of the deliberative engagement with citizens.
Missions Publiques: You mentioned the primary focus of the Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) project is technological breakthrough. How did that impact on the design of your deliberation?
Mahmud Farooque: Research on nuclear waste management has been going on for decades. Research on CDR is just starting. However, because of the urgency of addressing the impacts of climate change, the research is also accelerated unlike anything we have seen before. We are trying out a lot of technological options, some of which are in the laboratory phase, some of which are in the field test phase, and some of which are in the demonstration and deployment phase. It is like the situation in 2020 with the COVID-19 vaccines when we had to research many alternatives while also testing and applying them to contain the spread of the virus.
This makes designing deliberations difficult. We recognized two key challenges. On one hand we had to ask citizens questions about somethings that do not exist, or are in some intermediate form, or have unknown impacts on our environment, economy, and society. On the other hand, we had to make the answers usable to different stakeholders in different phases of CDR technology development. So, we gave our deliberation project three aims. First, to find what were the hopes and concerns of citizens with regards to the different phases of technology development. Second, to find where the opportunities were for giving public input to the various stakeholders in government, industry, academia, and civil society. Third, and finally, to find when and how we can give this input so stakeholders can make more inclusive, democratic, and socially responsible decisions. Our project makes a small attempt to address these three goals with research on citizen values, research on stakeholder needs and research on how we can integrate the two with focusing on two countries: United States and Canada.
Missions Publiques: What is common in both projects is the approach towards justice, and from that perspective, it is quite intriguing for us in France…
Mahmud Farooque: Indeed, despite the technological differences, one element that is in common between both projects is commitment to justice. It means we cannot just find a solution to these two problems, but we also need to do them in a manner that is just, fair, and equitable. However, to do that, we need to first define what we mean by justice. There are at least four different types of justice we take into account before starting any project: Procedural justice – is the process we are using to make our decisions inclusive and fair? Distributional justice – are the costs and benefits of our decisions shared equitably by the different stakeholders and citizens? Recognitional justice – are we acknowledging historic and current harms we have done to certain individuals and segments of our society? And Inter-generational justice – are we lessening the burden our decisions can have on those that will come after us? To address these four types of justice concerns we need different types of citizen engagement. Because of a generous budget and scope, in the nuclear waste project, we are able to incorporate all four of the elements in our deliberation design through extensive pre-deliberation engagement with different communities in Arizona. In the carbon dioxide removal project, given that we have a small budget and limited scope for our deliberation, we are primarily focusing on procedural justice issues. We hope that we can address other dimensions of justice through future projects with a larger scope and sufficient budget.