Citizen science – exploitation or engagement

I was in Brussels yesterday at the final meeting of the PERARES project – Public Engagement with Research and Researcher Engagement with Society, a European project that explored how to develop more effective mechanisms for citizen engagement.

An interesting discussion arose about the nature of Citizen Science and whether current practices around Citizen Science are exploitation or engagement. Let me explain.

The PERARES project was formulated around the idea that citizen involvement with research should cover all aspects of the research cycle, from formulating ideas for research questions; developing the research methodology; conducting the research; sharing the results; and making a difference. This is co-production at its best – and clearly is an important part of the engaged research landscape. It challenges notions of research on society, and replaces it with research with society.

The current plethora of citizen science projects, brought about by the increase of digital technology, tend to be more narrowly defined, with citizens participating as data collectors or data analysers. This can be seen in the wonderful examples of Zooniverse, Conker tree science and iSpot. So the question is, are these citizen science projects a good thing?

My view is that these are excellent engagement opportunities – offering members of the public an really interesting opportunity to engage with research – and contribute something of value. When framed correctly, these are good opportunities for people to find out more about the research process. Clearly there are some things that need to be done to ensure that the experience is effective for participants including – a clear understanding of what they are being asked to do and why; an easy way to participate; an opportunity to see the results of the project and how their contribution made a difference and clearly the whole process needs to be transparent! However, when these factors are implemented there are benefits all round – an increasingly research literate public who have been actively engaged in something that has value; more data for the scientists; and a better outcome for the research.

Now I also think that citizen science can be done differently, with participants more involved in setting research questions, however I am not convinced that every engagement opportunity should do this. The participants in Conker Tree Science were motivated by the opportunity to do some real science in the classroom, and to contribute their data to real research. When offered the opportunity to frame their own question, participants chose an area of research that did not then ignite the public imagination, and led to rather less engagement than had been hoped.

I wonder what other people think? Is citizen science a good thing? What are the quality indicators of good practice? To what extent should all citizen involvement cover the full research cycle? Let me know what you think?

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2 thoughts on “Citizen science – exploitation or engagement

  1. Thanks Sophie,

    A growing debate and issue here too! Last week at our university we hosted a roundtable session on Public Engagement in Science with a wide range of actors: professors from a wide range of backgrounds-from geography to biology to engineering and social work; university administrators, graduate students doing underwater ‘live dive’ classrooms from a local bay (in our Pacific Ocean!) to inspire schoolchildren, an environmental law and justice NGO who has taken on the silencing of scientists by the federal government and filmmakers working in climate change issues. …it was all very interesting and exciting. A major concern about ‘citizen science’ here is that universities need to be wary of not enabling contributing to the off-loading and downsizing of environmental regulations and public offices. The editor of our local paper expressed that sentiment last week after reading about a professor getting high school students to monitor water pollution which was previously monitored by local government. However as evident by the enthusiastic turn-out to our own event, the subject brings together diverse actors and provides an enabling framework and tool for multi-sector partnership and for engaging a wide range of citizens in learning about and caring for the environment. It is encouraging that citizen science is growing into the public engagement with science and universities discourse, not just locally but globally.
    On that note I was thinking about the words of Rajesh Tandon, the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, himself a scientist, who participated in the legal case against Union Carbide in the Bhopal pesticide case wherein 5200 people died of poisoning. As he said at our own CUVIC 2014 Conference this May – Community-based research must move beyond community-based solutions to community problems but also tackle the BIG issues of our day. ….”I hope that in our engagement conversations next time we will have nuclear scientists, the chief executives of nuclear companies and the financiers as well ….” Here at UVIC our Environmental Law Centre, who connect students and professors with community partners, indigenous groups and NGOs, connects law with science to take on the major environmental issues of our times. These issues or needs are often locally based or felt but caused by national and global players. They thus require nationally and globally-sourced solutions. Increasingly in our country community and citizen science groups previously focused on local or provincial conservation efforts are now tackling, with the help of groups like the ELC, larger issues such as public access to information, resource extraction, indigenous rights and deregulation. Working with such community partners, the ELC students weave analysis, advocacy and law reform and increasingly require scientific research informed by local knowledge and observation. With this weave they are thus able to respond in an impactful and comprehensive way to major events such as the Mt Polley mining disaster which happened in our province two months ago. It is one of the biggest in Canadian history and affects a wide range of habitat, fisheries and, of course communities.
    Overall my feeling is that if citizen science contributes to an engaged and enlightened citizenship of all ages, great. The more place-based and experiential the learning the better! If this can also be part of a continuum of public engagement which increases accountability and response-ability from institutions and companies who affect the environment and communities, great. Universities as spaces for diverse and engaged research and perspectives have a core role to play in this. They can also help connect the learning and impact across the globe.

  2. Thanks Sophie,
    A growing debate and issue here too! Last week at our university we hosted a roundtable session on Public Engagement in Science with a wide range of actors: professors from a wide range of backgrounds-from geography to biology to engineering and social work; university administrators, graduate students doing underwater ‘live dive’ classrooms from a local bay (in our Pacific Ocean!) to inspire schoolchildren, an environmental law and justice NGO who has taken on the silencing of scientists by the federal government and filmmakers working in climate change issues. …it was all very interesting and exciting. A major concern about ‘citizen science’ here is that universities need to be wary of not enabling contributing to the off-loading and downsizing of public services and offices the deregulation of environmental monitoring and law, both of which have contributed to major environmental problems and “accidents” in recent years. The editor of our local paper expressed that sentiment last week after reading about a professor getting high school students to monitor water pollution, a public service that which was previously monitored by local government before cutbacks. However as evident by the enthusiastic turn-out to our own event, the subject brings together diverse actors and provides an enabling framework and tool for multi-sector partnership and for engaging a wide range of citizens in learning about and caring for the environment. It is encouraging that citizen science is growing into the public engagement with science and universities discourse, not just locally but globally.
    On that note I was thinking about the words of Rajesh Tandon, the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, himself a scientist, who participated in the legal case against Union Carbide in the Bhopal pesticide case wherein 5200 people died of poisoning. As he said at our own CUVIC 2014 Conference this May – Community-based research must move beyond community-based solutions to community problems but also tackle the BIG issues of our day. ….”I hope that in our engagement conversations next time we will have nuclear scientists, the chief executives of nuclear companies and the financiers as well ….” Here at UVIC our Environmental Law Centre-ELC (www.elc.uvic.ca) , which connect students and professors with community partners, indigenous groups and NGOs, law meets and needs science to take on the major environmental issues of our times. These issues or needs are often locally-based or felt but caused by national and global players. They thus require nationally and globally-sourced solutions. Increasingly in our country community and citizen science groups previously focused on local or provincial conservation efforts are now tackling, with the help of groups like the ELC, larger issues such as public access to information, resource extraction, indigenous rights and deregulation. Working with such community partners, the ELC students weave analysis, advocacy and law reform and increasingly require scientific research informed by local knowledge and observation. With this weave they are thus able to respond in an impactful and comprehensive way to major events such as the Mt Polley mining disaster which happened in our province two months ago. It is one of the biggest in Canadian history and affects a wide range of habitat, fisheries and, of course communities.
    Overall my feeling is that if citizen science contributes to an engaged and enlightened citizenship of all ages, great. The more place-based and experiential the learning the better! If this can also be part of a continuum of public engagement which increases accountability and response-ability from institutions and companies who affect the environment and communities, great. Universities as spaces for diverse and engaged research and perspectives have a core role to play in this. They can also help connect the learning and impact across the globe.

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