I’m currently attending the inaugural conference of the Citizen Science Association… “Citizen Science 2015“. Over 650 participants from around the world have arrived in San Jose to talk about all the various flavors and implications of citizen science. It’s been a fascinating conference so far, not least because there’s very little agreement on what the term “citizen science” even means, who is considered a part of that community, and what this sort of conference should be about. All of which makes for great and engaging discussion… especially combined with the wide range of people present, including professional scientists, science journalists, DIY-biologists, entrepreneurs, participants in projects, high school students, etc. etc. Rather than go through the program of awesome speakers (available on the website) or describe the many cool posters (abstracts on the website) I thought I’d just give my impressions of the meeting and the things that jumped out at me in the first day. For a more comprehensive view of the conference I’m sure there will soon be a Storify of the tweets and I know other forms of digital archiving are being planned. I’ll post those here when they come out.
It was great to see numerous efforts aimed at actually measuring participant engagement in citizen science and on quantifying the effect of participatory science in learning. Hopefully these efforts will inform the design of future citizen science projects.
I loved the term “guerrilla science” to refer to engaging people in citizen science projects in non-traditional venues (e.g. sporting events or gaming conventions).
Great discussions about the motivations for participants and the barriers to participation in citizen science. By far the biggest motivation in the talks that I saw was “a desire to contribute”. One of the biggest barriers that was discussed was a concern about data transparency and even more important, utility of the data. Participants want to know that what they’re doing will be actually useful.
I saw one talk from a law professor who discussed the need to consider IP and copyright when disseminating the results of citizen science projects. Gave me a lot to think about related to project design.
Another talk by someone affiliated with regulatory agencies emphasized the need to collect “actionable data” for projects that want to have an impact on regulation and policy. Simply testing the water in a creek wouldn’t meet the standards required for the information to be considered by a regulator. This is a topic I’ve heard often come up in discussions of the built environment and one that I feel is under-appreciated by many biologists.
One of the things that most struck me was the irony of reverse bias against “traditional science” and “traditional scientists”. I heard numerous complaints about how citizen science wasn’t valued in the same way, or given the same level of regard as “traditional science”. People told stories of prejudice against citizen science projects, grants being refused that contained a citizen science component, etc. And I don’t deny that this can be a problem (though I’ve not encountered it in my work… I seem to live in a bubble where the professional scientists that I interact with all seem to really value citizen science). My issue is with the number of times I heard “traditional science”, “expert”, and “data collection” used pejoratively. It’s no better to trash on “traditional science” that it is for professional scientists to dismiss citizen science as “not real science”. Both are unhelpful. Similarly, the pejorative use of “data collection” I found a bit jarring. I believe there is a very strong argument for engaging people in actually doing science… in whatever form that might take. And that often means working really hard to design a project in collaboration with participants, making sure people have access to the data, etc. But for some projects volunteers just want to help out a bit, researchers just need some data (e.g. classifying craters on the moon) and that’s okay. I don’t think it’s fair to judge projects like this as “exploitative”. In a similar vein were discussions about “power dynamics” wherein it was presented as a problem that a “scientist” comes up with a research question and citizen scientists helped with the work. There are many examples of really cool projects where the design of the project or the research question comes from the participants or the local community. And that’s awesome. Does that mean a project conceived by a professor at a university and then brought into a local community is automatically bad? Of course not. I feel a lot of the generalizations that I heard could be answered with “it depends on the project and the context”.
And while I’m ranting… at least 4 of the speakers I saw today introduced themselves as “I’m not a scientist”. To my mind, the whole point of citizen science is the very idea that anyone can do science. People use the scientific method in their daily lives all the time, people use a “systematic approach to acquiring knowledge” (often part of the definition of science) without having a PhD. I would much rather someone say “I’m a science journalist” or “I’m an entrepreneur” rather than defining themselves in the negative. But if they must, I’d say “I’m not a professional scientist”.
So as to not end on a negative note, I’m really loving the conference overall. There’s a great energy and so many people doing so many cool things. I think citizen science is a growing field and will continue to have a positive impact on everyone involved.