The other day I was involved in a discussion on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking the questions were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)
The idea of citizen science has been around for quite some time – there are papers on the subject dating to the 90s – but in New Zealand I would hope it’s developing a higher profile in the scientific community with the advent of the NZ Science Challenges & their requirement to get ‘the public’ more engaged with the science that we’re doing in this country.
And under the citizen science model this requires some serious thinking about the logistics, because one thing it’s not, is scientists telling laypeople what they’ve been doing. Instead, it sees school children, their whanau, members of various community groups, all getting involved in an organised and coordinated way with the actual research: making observations, collecting data, viewing the results & discussing them with researchers, looking at how to apply them in their area. This is a lot more complex in terms of organisation than arranging to give a talk or write a pop-science article (or a blog!).
Jonathan SIlvertown defines a citizen scientist as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (2008: 467), and notes that such projects are becoming particularly common in ecology and environmental science. (And it’s not a new initative: Bonney et al (2009) point out that US lighthouse keepers got involved in collecting data on bird strikes back in the 1880s. Perhaps we could regard Charles Darwin as a citizen scientist, particularly at the beginning of his career – he certainly wasn’t doing it as part of a paying job!) He goes on to say that “[t]oday, most citizen scientists work with professional counterparts on projects that have been specifically designed or adapted to give amateurs a role, either for the educational benefit of the volunteers or for the benefit of the project. The best examples benefit both” (2008: 467). This makes it clear that planning to involve citizen scientists in a given project has to part of the initial project development; it can’t really be an add-on at the end. While many of the projects Silvertown lists are essentially surveys and censuses, Bonney et al (2009) provide a model for doing citizen science to answer particular scientific questions in a way that also enhances science literacy and engagement with the subject.
Bonney & his colleagues work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which over the years has seen the results of many ‘citizen-science’ projects published in a range of journals. At the same time they’ve noted increases in scientific literacy and engagement with science among many of their lay participants. These are very positive outcomes, and they’ve put together a model for setting up such initiatives and assessing their success. Commenting that “we have found that projects whose developers follow this model can simultaneously fulfil their goals of recruitment, research, conservation, and education“ (2009:979), Bonney & his team list the following steps/stages in setting up & running a successful citizen-science project:
1. Choose a scientific question – it will probably be one that stretches across a relatively long period of time, or a large geographic area.
2. Form a scientist/educator/technologist/evaluator team – this must include individuals from multiple disciplines – the scientist to develop the question, methodology & analysis tools; the educator to field-test methods with the participants, develop support materials, etc; and so on.
3. Develop, test, and refine protocols, data forms, and educational support materials: it’s essential that participants receive clear protocols for collecting their data (using clear simple forms) & that they receive help in understanding those protocols and passing their data on to the researchers.
4. Recruit participants. How this is done is going to depend on whether the project is open to all or is intended for a particular cohort eg school students.
5. Train participants, so that they gain confidence in their ability to collect and submit data, & know they’ll be supported as and when necessary.
6. Accept, edit, and display data. “Whether a project employs paper or electronic data forms, all of the information must be accepted, edited, and made available for analysis, not only by professional scientists but also by the public. Indeed, allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data is one of the most educational features of citizen science” [my emphasis].
7. Analyse and interpret data. This can be tricky due to the often ‘coarse’ nature of the data-sets collected by participants, & made more so if there are (for example) errors due to species mis-identification or misunderstanding of protocols.
8. Disseminate results. While this will involve scientific publications, it’s also important – & essential – that the results and their interpretation & application are also communicated with the citizen scientists who helped to generate them. Feedback is important!
9. Measure outcomes. These will be both scientific and educational. The former are fairly straightforward to quantify: number of papers published, conference presentations given, or students successfully completing theses, for example. The educational outcomes may be harder to define, but Bonney et al suggest assessing things like the length of time people were involved with the project; how often they accessed web sites associated with the project; whether their understanding of the science content improved over the duration of the research; whether their understanding of the nature of science was enhanced; positive changes in attitudes towards science; better science-related skills; the number of participants stating increased interest in a career in science.
Doing all this will of necessity require education or social science research techniques, so there’s someone else to add to the team. And yes, there are costs to projects like these, in dollar terms but also in terms of the time taken to set up a rigorous project with benefits for all involved. But there is potential for those benefits to be significant, for all parties concerned.
R.Bonney, C.B.Cooper, J.Dickinson, S.Kelling, T.Phillips, K.V.Rosenberg & J.Shirk (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59(11):977-984
J.Silvertown (2008) A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(9): 467-471