SENCER, Science, and Democracy – A Convergence of Ideals

Eliza J. Reilly
NCSCE Executive Director

The vision of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement is to empower citizens as responsible, lifelong learners who can apply the knowledge, values, and methods of science to the complex local and global challenges facing our democracy. SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) is the NCSCE’s signature undergraduate education program.


If you are reading this you probably belong to that considerable subset of people who have a deep professional, as well as a personal, commitment to all three of the key elements represented by the acronym SENCER—Science, Education, Civic Engagement. And there is reason to be concerned about the status of all three at this moment in our history. At least it is indisputable that the civic and political landscape in which they all operate, either separately or in combination, has altered dramatically in the last year. Government officials openly challenge mainstream scientific consensus on critical matters, as much “airtime” is given to irrational claims and easily falsified “alternative facts” as to those based on evidence, education policy increasingly regards education as a “private asset” for leveraging earning power rather than as an essential public good and civic necessity, and threats to the integrity of our electoral system, including unduly restrictive voting laws, have affected the franchise—our most basic form of “civic engagement.” So, as a wise therapist once told me, when the going gets tough, the tough double-down on their core values and re-assert the principles that define them, in order to stay the course and strengthen their resolve.

I write this in the month of July, as the nation celebrates many of those core values as they were expressed in the Declaration of Independence of the United States. It is a time when we remember the revolutionary thinking of America’s founders and their leap of faith on behalf of the very modern, and still radical, ideals of freedom, equality, and the right of citizens to self-governance. For those of us who care deeply about the education of citizens in a democracy, it’s also important that we recall that the values and practices ascribed to this form of governance were inextricably bound to “science,” both as a body of knowledge and as a way of validating, testing, and revising the “truths” that ground collective deliberation and decision making. It’s not coincidental that these two key intellectual frameworks underpinning the modern era, science and democracy, were historically co-terminus, and when viewed through the widest lens, are grounded in shared assumptions about how people could live, act, and create a better world together. [1]

An article in the July 4th edition of the Washington Post reminded us that the principal author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was convinced that democracy was founded on scientific thinking, which authorized the displacement of monarchical and unquestioned authority. In the last letter he wrote before his death on July 4, 1826 (the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration), he reflected on the new form of governance that had replaced the authority of a single hereditary ruler:

”…The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. …All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them…these are grounds of hope for others.”[2]

There is a tragic irony in Jefferson’s inability, shared by most of his peers, to extend those “grounds of hope” to all people, and that blindness has continued to compromise and undermine American democracy to this day. But Jefferson’s words, if not his deeds, suggest that for the founders, science and democracy were inextricable partners in the trans-historical human enterprise that the philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher, calls “the ethical project” that has defined human history, the project in which we work out together how should live, cooperate, strive to expand our collective freedom and well-being.”[3]

Admittedly, there is a school of thought that holds science itself as a “value free” zone, a disinterested process only concerned with facts, and not inextricably bound to any larger ethical or civic agenda, but that has not been characteristic of American thought and practice from the founding.[4] The tradition of regarding science and democracy as part of a single “ethical project” continued to be an intellectual hallmark of the 19th and 20th centuries, as American intellectuals, including William James, Jane Addams, W.E.B. Dubois, John Dewey, all of whom were affiliated or influenced by the distinctively American philosophical school of pragmatism, cast aside untested traditional assumptions and hierarchies and put scientific methods, including inquiry, research and evidence collection, at the center of the democratic experiment. They actively integrated both evidence and ethics (or as the pragmatists might put it, facts and values) in addressing the challenges of their time, including racism, immigration, poverty, public health, social welfare, and most significantly, education.[5] To the extent that the post WWII era was deemed “the American Century” it was thanks not only to the nation’s economic and military might, but to the scientific and technological prowess advanced through this fusion of science and democracy.[6]

As someone trained as a historian of the United States, I was very familiar with the work of the pragmatic intellectuals and their commitment to scientific inquiry, the expansion of public knowledge, and evidence-based deliberation as the foundation of democratic practice. However, I was less familiar with how the community of scientists had embedded these interlocking values into their professional code. Fortunately for me, the SENCER project has for the last 17 years served as my best and most inspiring “learning community.” My long-time colleague Theo Koupelis, who was teaching SENCER courses even before the project existed, noted that the values espoused by SENCER faculty and reflected in the “SENCER ideals” mirrored the “Mertonian norms,” one of the clearest statements of the “ethos,” or value system regulating scientific practice. The author of the “norms,” the American sociologist Robert K. Merton, observed that they had an unmistakable affinity with the basic principles and norms of democratic practice, and, as Theo saw so clearly 18 years ago, these scientific ethical “norms” closely mirror the ideals and goals of SENCER courses and programs. Because we are in a period when many of the fundamental norms of behavior in civic and political life seem to be eroding, it may be worth reviewing and renewing our commitment to the norms of science and how they are aligned with the norms of the civic sphere, as well as with our collective educational practice in the SENCER community.

In his pathbreaking 1942 work “The Sociology of Science” Merton wrote: “The norms are …prescriptions, proscriptions, preferences, and permissions. They are legitimatized in terms of institutional values.”[7]  Merton noted that the norms definitely had methodological value to the practice of science… “but they are binding, not only because they are procedurally efficient, but because they are believed right and good. They are moral as well as technical prescriptions.” The Mertonion Norms are:

Universalism: scientific validity is independent of the sociopolitical status/personal attributes of its participants. Merton noted the affinity of this norm with democracy: “However inadequately it may be put into practice, the ethos of democracy includes universalism as a dominant guiding principle. Democratization is tantamount to the progressive elimination of restraints upon the exercise and development of socially valued capacities.” Because they are organized around complex and “unsolved” problems, many drawn from the immediate environment, SENCER courses welcome even novice learners into the process of scientific discovery, with the attending pleasures and responsibilities, inviting them to put their knowledge to use on a matter of direct relevance to them.

Communalism: all scientists should have common ownership of benefits accruing from scientific research and the resulting knowledge should be publicly available. Making the connection between this norm and the longstanding assumptions of American governance, with its special protections for private property, including intellectual property, is more challenging. But scientific practice provides a model that balances the individual interests of researchers and inventors with a commitment to public access to both scientific knowledge and the benefits of science, through the filing of patents, government oversight of research and development, and rigorous peer review for funding and publication of scientific results. In the US Constitution, the central role of free and fair access to the store of public knowledge is codified in the first amendment and the deliberative norms of the three branches of government. Science can’t be a private endeavor, nor can democracy. By linking science learning to civic issues, SENCER helps students see scientific inquiry as a public and social affair involving a community of learners contributing to our common store of knowledge. As John Dewey noted, science, like art, only does its work of changing the world when it is received, consumed, shared. 

Disinterestedness: scientific institutions act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for the personal gain of individuals, groups, or nations. In this regard the founders regarded science as an example of how the disparate interests can unite around a single ideal for the greater good. As Thomas Paine wrote in a Letter to the Abbé Raynal on the Affairs of North America (1782)

Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another; he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.

Democratic institutions are created to protect both individual rights and the “commonweal.” They must protect the health and welfare of the public against the predations of special interests that undermine public good. SENCER courses, by linking learning to complex public challenges, help students experience and understand the challenge of “disinterestedness” and the complexity of protecting the needs and rights of individuals while advancing the common good. Inevitably this surfaces both the power and limits of science in achieving that “common good” and the essential role that shared values play in determining how to calibrate action in relation to facts.

Organized skepticism: scientific claims should be widely exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted. Similarly, in a democracy, claims made in support of legislation or policy must be interrogated in light of insights and values drawn from other disciplines, knowledge communities, and stakeholders. By starting with authentic inquiry into unsolved and “wicked” problems, problems that by definition have no widely agreed upon and obvious solution, SENCER courses encourage students to challenge and investigate received wisdom and conventional assumptions, including their own, by becoming informed skeptics willing to expose their research and conclusions to critical scrutiny.

In his later work on the sociology of science, Robert Merton made it clear that in asserting that scientific practice involved adherence to norms he was not suggesting that scientists had “special qualities of character,” only that their practice is consensually ruled by a commitment to a publicly embraced set of values and codes that practitioners have embraced as foundational. [8] Merton’s view was that scientists “shun fraud not because of their virtue—perhaps outside the lab they cheat in all kinds of ways—but because, in this area of their lives, they are completely accustomed to thinking of honesty as paramount.”[9]  Ideally, citizens would hold the same view of honesty regarding participation in civic life, and make the same demand that their fellow citizens and representatives (including the press) “shun fraud” in regard to their civic responsibilities, as democracy cannot function in the absence of transparency, reliable public knowledge, and collective good faith. That honesty, academic and intellectual, is the bedrock of all education, goes without saying.

So far I have not mentioned what may be the most important word represented in the SENCER acronym, responsibility. The burden on any professional practitioner, and on citizens in a democracy, is that there is no “higher power” to pass the buck to. We get the science, and the government, and the learning that we earn through our individual, collective, and sincere efforts.

By placing these key words—Science, Education, and Civic Engagement—in combination, the SENCER project declared from the beginning its affinity with the Mertonian norms of science, and the core values and ideals of democracy. And those ideals have attracted a widening circle of practitioners and stakeholders to our “community of transformation,” all committed to advancing science learning and civic capacity.  In addition to college and university faculty our partners and collaborators now include informal educators, researchers, government and policy specialists, disciplinary associations, and science advocacy groups.[10] As an inclusive and transformative community we work together to empower citizens as responsible and informed agents, and to illuminate, both for our students and the public, the reciprocal and dialogical relationship of science and democracy, as well as the foundational relationship of both to learning as a way of life.



[1] My “wide lens” reflection on “ideals” here blurs some important historical debates about American democracy, including whether it is more bound to the “liberal” (individualistic) or “republican” (communitarian) traditions, both of which are further complicated by arguments about who gets to claim full inclusion in the civic sphere. For a provocative and disturbing historical analysis of how civic identity has been defined in practice, see Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[2] Gregory S. Schneider, “Jefferson’s Powerful Last Public Letter Reminds Us What Independence Day Is All About,” The Washington Post, accessed July 4, 2017,

[3] Philip Kitcher, Science in a Democratic Society (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2011).

[4] As the pioneering historian of medicine, Henry Sigerist observed, “It is impossible to establish a simple causal relationship between democracy and science and to state that democratic society alone can furnish the soil suited for the development of science. It cannot be a mere coincidence, however, that science actually has flourished in democratic periods.” Henry E. Sigerist, “Science and Democracy,” Science and Society, 2 (1938), 291.

[5] The centrality of evidence-based thinking to all aspects of the multi-faceted work of citizenship is emphasized by Rush Holt, former congressman and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: Alison Snyder, “Rush Holt Wants You to Know Evidence Isn’t Just for Scientists,”Axios, accessed July 25, 2017,

[6] Henry Luce, influential publisher of Time, declared in a famous 1941 editorial that U.S. global influence and power was expanding to the extent that the world was entering “the American Century.” Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a video recently distributed to Facebook, makes the clear connection between US economic and political power and its leadership in science and technology. Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Dear Facebook Universe I Offer This Four-Minute…,” Facebook, accessed July 4, 2017,

[7] Robert K. Merton, “Science and Technology in a Democratic Order,” Journal of Legal and Political Sociology, 1 (1942): 115-26.

[8] Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press, 1968).

[9] Kitcher, op. cit. 209

[10] Adrianna Kezar and Sean Gehrke, Communities of Transformation and Their Work Scaling STEM Reform (Los Angeles: Pullias Center for Higher Education, 2015).


Posted in Decision Making, eNews, In the News, Limits of Science, SENCER News.