Citizen science beyond the grassroots

13 April 2021


Reported by Samuel Ward, CSaP Policy Intern.

How should we, as a society, respond to a crisis? Traditionally the responsibility of national governments, what happens when their actions are deemed unsatisfactory? Can the resulting public response help guide policies toward building a more resilient, coordinated effort in future? For the first instalment of CSaP’s latest policy fellow seminar series on citizen science, Dr. Michiel Van Oudheusden explored the question: what would make you take science into your own hands?

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the capabilities and performances of national governments have occupied a wide spectrum, one which, in the eyes of the public media, holds the “East Asian success” at its extremum. “It struck me from the beginning – the relative success of East Asia.” said Dr. Van Oudheusden. As well as headlines, nations like Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea continue to dominate quantitative rankings. Why is this the case?

The official stories feature decisive government action, effective and high-tech contact tracing, good risk communication and, possibly most widely discussed, civic compliance. It is this notion of docile collectivism, that the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual, which has underpinned the Western narrative of East Asia’s response. But does the performance of these nations really just come down to people who are less self-interested? To understand, one must examine the missing piece in the narrative: bottom-up initiative.

In these countries, citizens do not wait for government instructions before acting. In South Korea’s Daegu, the city believed to be the first epicentre of the pandemic outside China, businesses closed pre-emptively – before the government asked. From a very early stage, the public-led SAFECAST platform began interpreting official government guidelines for the people of Japan, and soon after they deployed the Covid-19 testing map. By collecting data straight from the public, on test coverage, availability and the results, it aimed to determine how the testing service could improve. Even without looking at the performance of these initiatives, it's clear that citizens have the power to improve the communal response.

What drives people to coordinate in this way, amongst themselves? Is it driven by the selflessness purported by popular media? Crucially, these explanations miss the historical context. The very same SAFECAST platform used to track Covid-19 tests was originally designed to monitor radiation after the Fukushima reactor meltdown. It was the inadequate supply of information from government which drove the public to take science into their own hands, using science as a protest technology against official methods. The citizen science enacted today is driven by that lingering mistrust; “trust is not a renewable resource.” A similar story exists in South Korea too, in which the government kept information hidden from the public during the SARS and MERS outbreaks.

So, what should governments do about this dichotomy? “What's interesting is that some of the public authorities are tapping into the notion of citizen science: launching apps, data platforms and speaking of open government approaches and open data platforms – there's a lot going on.” illustrated Dr. Van Oudheusden. In Singapore, where Covid-19 clusters in migrant housing complexes were overlooked, the government adapted with a more cooperative approach, launching the Tracetogether app. From the onset, the app was explicitly billed as a citizen science project. Similarly, the Taiwanese government works alongside the public through its fact-checking centres.

Crises like the pandemic, and the corresponding government responses, have raised the profile of citizen scientists, prompting questions over their wider usage. Are citizen scientists better prepared than formal institutions? After all, they are highly adaptive to local needs, as was the case in Fukushima. They are firmly rooted in local networks, and they are trusted by the wider public. Crucially, they can act critically and independently; SAFECAST claim only to gather data, and its trustworthiness has been appreciated by experts in the field, prompting calls for closer collaboration.

This is not to say there are no differences between East and West. Government enforcement, design of centralised infrastructure, and community perception of trade-offs between privacy and public health all vary between nations. However, there is nothing inherently “Eastern” or “Western” about the reasons why nations that harness citizen science perform well in the face of crises. Ultimately, the search for better explanations and robust responses to future crises starts with data on the ground, in the hands of citizens.

Organised exclusively for CSaP Policy Fellows and Continuing Fellows, this three-part seminar series on citizen science runs alongside an edited collection, produced in collabration with the Expertise Under Pressure research project: Future directions for citizen science and public policy. This collection of essays, created by leading policy makers, practitioners, scientists and scholars, will showcase good practice and aim to set out the potential for citizens to contribute more effectively to policy making. The collection will be open access, freely available online and launched at the CSaP annual conference in June 2021.

Samuel Ward

University of York