Involve your community

by David Harris on October 14, 2010

Not many research institutions build really close links with their local community. Management often doesn’t see the value in having such a strong relationship with people who have no research-related impact on the institution.

I have seen community engagement done incredibly well, however, and it has turned previous enemies into friends. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory was once the target of picketing and protests when it was a contender for hosting the Superconducting Super Collider, which was later placed in Texas before being cut by Congress. The collider was tens of miles in circumference and would have had a significant effect on the local community. A well-organized group of citizens mounted a significant campaign “Citizens Against The Collider Here”, despite the potential benefits to the community from the project.

At that time, Fermilab did not have very strong relationships with the local community and so they had very little they could do. Once a protest campaign has begun, it’s pretty much impossible to stop it through reason alone. Even if you convince some people, the nature of protests is that you typically have a large enough fraction of protesters that will continue to protest regardless of what you do. You have already lost credibility with them, and so nothing you can do can be effective.

In the years since, faced with the potential of another collider perhaps a decade in the future, Fermilab decided to create a Citizens’ Task Force which would learn about the potential project and assess its impact on their community. The lab promised to take their recommendations seriously, and the lab director was involved.

One of the first things the Fermilab PIO staff did was to invite a leader of the previous protest to be part of the task force. Over the time that the task force did its work (about a year), that protest leader became a strong supporter of the new project, whether or not the potential collider actually ever comes about.

Having a local community ready to go into bat for your project is far better than a neutral community, and obviously better than a protesting one!

Fermilab have since made a standing committee of local citizens to advise them on all kinds of issues the lab faces.

It’s an investment in the future and one that evidence suggests will pay off handsomely.

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