Finding a Place for Citizen Science in Policymaking

29 May 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

How does citizen science help us think about science not merely as a matter of applying expert knowledge within policy, but rather as a different set of ways of developing understanding and mobilizing science through broader processes of engagement and inquiry?

Over the past academic year, CSaP has participated in an ongoing discussion concerning the role of citizen science within our societies. In late May, CSaP Director Dr Rob Doubleday invited three of the participants in these discussions to participate in seminar at our 2020 Virtual Annual Conference, where they explored how people and policymakers can promote and participate in citizen science initiatives.

There is a big, educated, interested and engaged world out there filled with people who have their own questions and their own drivers, with some of them interested in science and engagement, suggests Professor Johannes Vogel, Director of the Natural History Museum Berlin. Meanwhile, institutionalized science has its own ambitions, drivers, ideas and questions. Somehow, Professor Vogel suggests, these two things need to become part of one shared research and knowledge system. Furthermore, we need to grow communities and empower them, taking a long-term view towards increasing engagement which may inspire scientists and challenge many long-held assumptions. As we seek to reshape engagement between citizens and scientists, Professor Vogel suggests that science communicators will need to focus more on contextualizing findings within the bigger picture, becoming a more reflective part of a larger knowledge community while doing more to create deep engagement with local and the global communities.

There are potentially roles for citizens in terms of how people are examining debating, engaging in scientific inquiry to think about how facts are formed, suggested Professor Jennifer Gabrys, Professor of Media, Culture and Environment in the University of Cambridge's Department of Sociology. Within the context of the politics of knowledge, she suggests that citizen science can really help us think about how knowledge is made, and can facilitate the interrogation of political decisions that are made about how expert knowledge is mobilized, how other forms of knowledge are potentially not present, and how they might be brought into the conversation. Consequently, she believes that citizen science is a way to foster democratic engagement, and a way to work towards more liveable worlds. Here, Professor Gabrys posited that citizen science initiatives can become civic proposals about how to remake various urban environments and other contexts so that they are less polluting, at which point the practices involved in citizen science can intersect with citizen action and co-design. In this model of engagement, citizen science offers opportunities for productive interchange across science and society through collective processes of testing, observing, implementing, maintaining, debating and insisting for more liveable worlds.

Bringing a policy perspective to the discussion, Julie Pierce, Director, of Openness, Data, Digital, and Wales at the Food Standards Agency, noted that her agency's recent citizen science project highlighted the degree to which citizen science is self-selecting. For citizen science to be of maximum utility to policymakers, her experience suggests that proponents of citizen science methods need to zero in on ways to connect with hard to reach groups, and to show how this form of engagement can generate value for agencies and institutions which are seeking to understand what citizen science means and whether it is right for their organisations.

This virtual seminar was part of CSaP’s 2020 Virtual Annual Conference Seminar Series, which will be running throughout the months of May and June. To learn more, or to register for your free ticket to attend an upcoming session, please visit our annual conference events page.

To learn more about CSaP's work on Citizen Science, you can listen to our Citizen Science Lightning Talks here or explore our Citizen Science stories here.


Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash