This paper considers the challenges for the emergence of science/society partnerships in a young democracy in the context of access to, and use of, natural resources. As resource issues and related decision-making gain in complexity and urgency, science is increasingly expected to develop solutions in partnership with the public. Challenges to these partnerships are discussed and supported by observations from a South African case example in water resources management. Within the current governance system for natural resources, there are both an expectation and an opportunity to promote democracy via the civic science process. Key to achieving this is the process of collaborative knowledge generation in which science and the public are knowledge partners. The opportunity is supported by various factors: the resource “supply and demand” dialogue around access to, and use of, resources reinforces democratic processes through the explicit recognition of diverse knowledge systems; the research process makes provision for rigour in the co-creation of knowledge; and the overall expectation of democratic relationships in society creates a milieu favourable for promoting democracy through science. Within the context of a developing country, challenges include low levels of social capital such as trust, empowerment and connectedness. The case study also indicates that there are significant delays in attempts to address differentials in empowerment and trust in the science/society partnership, and that this is a significant barrier for the ability of civic science to be an effective vehicle for deepening democracy. In addition, the civic science endeavour is currently only weakly supported by policy. Unless the imperative for civic science to support democratic governance is institutionalised through policy and strategy, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient human and financial investment in civic science as a means to promote democratic governance. This is especially true for developing countries, whose policies and strategies should support the use of civic science as a means of bridging inequities and meeting urgent development goals together with more medium- and long-term imperatives through the co-creation of knowledge.

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