Perspectives on Citizen Science

7 April 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In partnership with Professor Johannes Vogel, Berlin Natural History Museum, and Professor Jennifer Gabrys at the University of Cambridge, CSaP organised a conference to explore the opportunities and barriers for policy makers to make use of recent experiments that engage citizens as active agents in the production and use of knowledge.

Reflecting on her work with Forschungsfall Nachtigall, a Berlin-based project which records nightingale songs and collects stories about nightingales, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin’s Dr Sarah Darwin highlighted that citizen science projects can have multiple aims and can engage with people in different ways. Her project, which has worked with refugees and the local community, has scientific, cultural, and community-building goals, and has sparked a conversation about people feel about and understand nightingales and their symbolism, while simultaneously collecting information about the birds’ regional dialects.

While scientists can lead citizen science projects which have a variety of aims, Dr Michiel van Oudheusden of the University of Cambridge also emphasized that other actors can start citizen science projects. While some citizen science projects are contributory, with citizens collaborating with professional scientists, there are also self-organised grassroots movements of citizens who engage in scientific endeavours. While these groups operate outside of formal institutions, they can have a big impact on formal institutions, including scientific communities, policymakers, or educational organisations. Examples of successful grassroots projects include those working on air pollution, climate change, and monitoring the after-effects of disasters, with one project in Japan monitoring levels of radiation following the Fukushima disaster.

This potential role of citizen science in the context of disaster was further emphasized by Dr Jason Chilvers, whose work maps citizen science globally around disaster risk reduction. His work on the study of citizen science projects has included a range of projects, some of which are science-led, while others engage with a variety of forms of public knowing surrounding hazards and risks, and which encompasses oral histories, local narratives, storytelling, vernacular knowledge, knowledge making, and the experiences of local communities. Here, participants in these forms of knowledge sharing may not even see themselves as “citizen scientists” when involved in these projects.

The inclusion of citizens in scientific dialogues can also result in new perspectives on technologies, policies, and society. Philipp Verpoort of the Sortition Foundation, reflected on citizen assemblies – randomly selected groups of people from a region who come together to study and discuss policy issues alongside experts – as a way of ensuring citizens can provide information about their own lived experiences, extending their participation beyond participation in data collection. He suggests that these assemblies can create trust and create legitimacy for policy options. Reflecting on her experiences leading public engagement projects on Artificial Intelligence with the Royal Society, Jess Montgomery emphasized that the inclusion of public dialogue in conversations about the development of new technologies presents an opportunity for scientists to be made aware of how social values surrounding technological development are significant, and can result in increased understanding about how people want to use technologies, and what is needed for those developing data governance to gain and maintain public trust in innovations.

Reflecting on the intersections between citizen science and political philosophy, MfN Berlin’s Dr Maike Weißpflug emphasized the value of non-expert knowledge, and the importance of approaches in social philosophy which place the ability of ordinary citizens to create knowledge on an equal footing with experts. Here, the role of teachers and scientists is to create a framework which guides the independent learning of others, empowering the creation of knowledge in a radically equal way while abolishing the divide between “the knowing” and “the ignorant”. In her concluding remarks, Dr Weißpflug suggested that these philosophical considerations can shed an interesting light on the ability of citizens to participate in research and learning as equals while adding their own perspective.

You can listen to many of the lightning talks from the Perspectives on Citizen Science session on our Youtube channel's Citizen Science Playlist. You can also learn more about CSaP's Spring 2020 Citizen Science Conference by reading our Citizen Science Report, available here.


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

Photo credit: Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash