Citizen Science – Breaking the Walls between Science and Society

Citizen science is gaining momentum as a movement uniting academic researchers and science aficionados, globally. The term has recently become popular referring to a variety of participation and outreach formats across a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, including ecology and nature conservation, geography, public health, local history and volunteer computing, stretching as far as citizen-led hacker and maker initiatives. While amateur research has a long tradition, for instance in natural history and astronomy, the number of opportunities for everybody to contribute to research is currently multiplying and formats are diversifying.

Take for example the Airbezen Project (Dutch), led by Roeland Samson from the Environmental Ecology and Microbiology research group at University of Antwerp, which used strawberry plants as measuring stations for air pollution. The research group distributed plants to school classes and families throughout the city, asked them to plant the strawberries outside and nurture them, and eventually send leaves back for analysis in the lab. While this project had been started by university researchers and public engagement was sought at a later stage, another variant of citizen science emerges bottom-up and is usually driven by community groups. The Extreme Citizen Science Group from University College London (UCL), for instance, works with various citizen initiatives in London and elsewhere to support the use of science for local concerns. Mapping for change, a spin-off of UCL’s work in that area, facilitates community-led initiatives of participatory mapping on environmental pollution and other sustainability-related issues. Their aim is to empower individuals and communities to make a difference to their local area through the use of mapping and geographical information. Other citizen science projects emphasize the educational value of participating in research activities to promote insights into who scientists are and how research works. A popular format used for environmental education is a Bioblitz, in which people record every living being they can identify for a given period of time at a given location. The natural history museum in Barcelona, for example, holds a Bioblitz weekend (Catalan) every spring / summer in a local park, inviting school classes and biologists to jointly learn about the local flora and fauna. Online platforms and serious games represent another booming area of citizen science. The famous Zooniverse platform lists 42 projects asking volunteers to contribute their time for the advancement of research by classifying galaxies and identifying animals from camera trap images or videos, or transcribing handwritten documents.

Citizen science has been on a steady rise for some years already, which manifests in the growing number of research papers (see Kullenberg and Kasperowski, 2016 for a recent study reviewing the field of citizen science) and dedicated special issues, such as in the Journal of Science Communication or Human Computation. Attention for citizen science is also increasing in the media, e.g. the US television series The Crowd & The Cloud or the RBB piece “Käferforscher und Sternegucker” by OZON unterwegs (German), as well as among decision makers – see the platform citizenscience.gov aimed at promoting citizen science and crowdsourcing in the US government or the recent interview of Germany’s Federal Minister of Education and Research, Prof. Dr. Johanna Wanka with DIE ZEIT (German) announcing funding for research projects involving volunteers. Within the community, networks have started to emerge in many countries, for example around the German project finder BürgerSchaffenWissen (“CitizensCreateKnowledge”), the Austrian platform ÖsterreichForscht (AustriaResearches), or the Observatory of Citizen Science in Spain. In addition, we find associations dedicated to fostering exchange and collaboration between practitioners already on three continents with the US-based Citizen Science Association (CSA), the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA), and the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA).

This momentum built up by the citizen science communities around the globe became palpable during the 1st international ECSA conference that took place from 19-21 May in Berlin (see #ecsa2016). About 350 participants including project managers, citizen scientists, decision makers and researchers from Europe and beyond attended the event dedicated to converge around the potential and challenges of citizen science for science, society and policy. The questions addressed were manifold: How can we improve information and communication technologies to leverage more and more meaningful participation in research and what advances have we seen recently in the visualisation and quality of citizen science data? How to embed citizen science into schools and what are innovative approaches for civic engagement? What impacts does citizen engagement have on science and how to make collective intelligence useful for social innovation? What needs to be done to improve the link of citizen science to policy? In general, one can see that in all of these areas pilot activities have developed into more mature phases offering rich reports on successes, failures and refinement that now provide the basis for exchange of experiences and collaboration across the borders of Europe.

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Dinner, drinks and networking during the evening reception at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, where ECSA Headquarters are located. Photo by Hwa Ja Götz

A poignant example of the state of affairs can be found in the 10 Principles of Citizen Science. The Principles have been developed by the ECSA working group “Sharing Best Practice and Building Capacity” chaired by Lucy Robinson from the Natural History Museum London. Understanding that citizen science is not only a very diverse phenomenon but also a rapidly evolving field, these guidelines of good practice have been elaborated collaboratively by citizen science project managers across Europe and translated into 17 languages.

Instead of defining what counts as citizen science and what doesn’t, the Principles represent a consensus as to what characteristics are assumed to constitute good citizen science projects and at the same time point out areas where more and concerted efforts are needed in the future. We can already identify many good examples of how all of these principles are put into practice in different initiatives. However, much work remains to be done until they are implemented more widespread and comprehensively, including more research on citizen science, method development and refinement, mainstreaming and training, as well as work towards structural adjustments and resource allocation.

What is more, these principles exemplify the work of a community in which critical self-reflection of one’s own role at the interface between science and society is an integral part. This has been another main theme of the conference expressed, for instance, in the heavily oversubscribed session on “citizen science studies” that brought practitioners reflecting on their projects and scholars doing research on citizen science together to identify common ground and future research opportunities. The new journal Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, which celebrated the release of its inaugural issue at the conference, will certainly serve as a hub to continue these discussions and contribute to solidifying the scholarly basis of this emerging field.

At ECSA, we are going to continue our work to support the citizen science community in Europe and promote international cooperation. The annual general assembly, which also took place during the international conference, has re-elected the Executive Board of Dr. Katrin Vohland and Prof. Dr. Johannes Vogel from the Museum für Naturkunde for a second term of office. The Berlin Headquarter of the association is expected to grow in the next month and to put our augmented capacities to work for the ECSA Secretariat as well as in the Horizon2020 project “Doing it Together Science”, a project to strengthen citizen science and Do-It-Yourself research approaches in Europe coordinated by UCL Extreme Citizen Science group.

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