Getting to grips with citizen science

By Dr Hannah Grist, Scottish Policy Group Communications Rep.

Hannah Grist is CoCoast Project Officer at the Scottish Association for Marine Sciencewhere she co-ordinates the Capturing our Coast citizen science project.

Citizen scientists at work (Photo: Hannah Grist)
Citizen scientists at work (Photo: Hannah Grist)

If you have been following any science social media or comment, chances are that you will have seen a headline last year that involved the words “citizen scientist”. According to some rather florid websites, 2015 has been the year of the citizen scientist, when this new method of advancing scientific endeavour has really comes of age. Love it or hate it, when it has been put forward in a Nature editorial and entered the Oxford English Dictionary, you know that you can no longer ignore it.

The argument often comes that while the term might be new, the concept isn’t. Indeed, many people point to the gentlemen naturalists of the Victorian era, who discovered and described the world around them for the sheer joy of knowledge (“amateur” is an old French word meaning “love of”), often whilst pursuing a formal occupation as a doctor or clergyman.  However, the most intriguing and changeable word in the term is not “citizen”; but “scientist”. The word itself wasn’t introduced until the 1800s, and it took until the 20th century for the concept of science as a profession, utilising key methods of inquiry and pursued by a trained and distinct group of people, to become truly mainstream.

Formalising science as a profession has led to an avalanche of benefits for society, from technological advances to medical breakthroughs. However, it has the consequence that we now sub-divide the world into “scientists” and “non-scientists”; you either chose to “do” science, or you don’t. Science becomes another activity that is closed to those who don’t undertake it as a profession, in the same way that I will never stand up in a court (hopefully!), or perform heart surgery.

Somewhat ironically, it is these same technological breakthroughs that really began to turn the tide on this idea, and it is a recent shift. As computing power increased and machines at home became connected to a vast network, the potential to use personal devices for bigger questions became much greater. Enter large-scale computing science ventures that asked people to participate in science, from taking up unused power to search for intergalactic objects, to completing puzzles that solve cancer.

For some people, playing shooting games in the knowledge that they are helping science somehow, somewhere, is enough. But for others, the clever methods we devise to “gamify”, or simplify, the underlying questions in order to give it mass appeal, actually mask the important issues that are at stake. One computing venture, Rosetta@home, actually started as a science project to use free bandwidth on home computers to run through the millions of protein folding combinations for biochemistry research. However, they began to get complaints from the computer owners, who were idly watching the combinations appear on their screens, and were convinced they could do a better job. Over time, “FoldIt” appeared as an option, allowing citizen scientists to find protein formations by eye: and the results were astonishing. In one challenge, users found the structure of an enzyme involved in HIV production in just over 3 weeks, when it had been previously unsolved for a decade.

The FoldIt story illustrates that often participants want more engagement with the project than is offered. The trouble with many of these ventures, clever and useful as they are, is that people are still not participating in the actual science. They are contributing bandwidth, and time and making a difference in the search through big data, but quite often are learning little about the wider motivations of the project other than a page of information, or getting to grips with the process itself. The problem stems from a combination of people feeling inadequately prepared to undertake “real science” without training, and scientists themselves assuming that this is the case. Scientists are sometimes guilty of seeing the benefits of citizen science first and foremost for the information: that there is potential to gain larger amounts of data than are possible through classical means of field assistants and postgraduate students. Often, such projects are designed, explicitly or unintentionally, to keep the data collection separate from the scientific thought process itself. As one paper put it, “Scientists often have an aversion to what non-scientists say about science”.

Occasionally, educational organisations are guilty of the opposite perspective: seeing these opportunities as a teaching tool, without ensuring the rigor and understanding required to answer a genuine scientific question. In a changing world, where the need for universal scientific literacy and an evidence-based approach is increasingly apparent, we cannot afford to maintain these artificial barriers. There are welcome moves towards this: for example, the move to open-access data is a positive step, on the understanding that the plethora of environmental issues will need many eyes and many hands to tackle. Citizen science could have a significant role to play in bringing together scientists and the public in a genuine partnership, which involves engagement and dialogue on both sides, to the benefit of both the science and the participants.

In the end, how does this link to policy? The BES published a blog over two years ago about citizen science, where we discussed the advantages of mass participation for building evidence bases, and implications of data quality: both important issues that are incredibly relevant from a policy perspective. More intangibly, giving people the opportunity to participate directly in the science can influence their opinions and values, and how they interpret evidence provided to them on policy issues, even from other fields. A review by the Conservation Volunteers highlighted that “knowledge alone is not enough affect a sustainable change; however the experiential learning afforded to participants in Citizen Science and public monitoring activities… can have a prominent effect upon the subsequent behaviours and attitudes of participants.” Or, as one blogger put it, “If citizens are going to live with the benefits or potential consequences of science (as the vast majority of them will), it’s incredibly important to make sure that they are not only well informed about changes and advances in science and technology, but that they also…are able to…influence the science policy decisions.”

Perhaps it is time to come back to the word “citizen” again. It may mean the member of country or state, but has become associated over time with participation in public and political life, as well as having rights and responsibilities. Citizen science should be about people actively understanding and engaging with the science, and, fundamentally, how that science will have an impact upon their lives.

If you are interested in the role of citizen science in ecology, join our Citizen Science Special Interest Group