Citizen science: reshaping relations between science, government and citizens

3 October 2019


Reported by Alex Kell, EPSRC-funded Policy Intern (September-December 2019)

“We are facing an unprecedented crisis in human history,” says Professor Johannes Vogel, General Director of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin and Professor of Biodiversity and Public Science at the Humboldt Universität, Berlin.

Giving the keynote address at the first event in CSaP’s new citizen science initiative, Professor Vogel spoke about the importance of teaching scientific literacy to citizens in democracies, to arm the public with the necessary tools to respond to challenges including climate change, biodiversity loss, and misinformation. Professor Jennifer Gabrys, Chair in Media, Culture and Environment at the University of Cambridge provided a response.

Professor Vogel highlighted the urgent need to solve unprecedented crises such as inequality and the destruction of nature. On land, he highlighted that primary vegetation, as a percentage of global land surface, has fallen significantly since the 19th century, while global land and soil degradation has increased, with 30% of land now unsuitable for human or animal use. Meanwhile, in our oceans, 90% of global fish stocks are exploited or overfished, a trend that has increased since 1974.

A knowledge-driven democratic society is required to combat these crises, wherein citizens possess the analytical tools to exercise judgement and use science to inform policy. There is a danger that without these skills, citizens could be swayed by misinformation which sows doubt and leaves space for pernicious ideas such as anti-vaccination rhetoric within our societies, and which is detrimental to the foundations of our democracy.

Scientists must play a part in increasing public understanding of science by improving the curation of their knowledge and making scientific findings and processes accessible to the general public. Viewing scientific outputs and the protection of nature as inherently political, the speakers criticized the science communication strategy used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when discussing the use of CO2 parts per million as a climate change indicator. Rather, they suggested that the urgent response required to combat climate change could be more impactfully articulated by public engagement strategies akin to that used by the School Strike for the Climate and activist Greta Thunberg.

Professor Vogel emphasised that both scientific and societal solutions are required to combat society’s grand challenges. However, there are no easy solutions to economic stagnation, and we continue to know very little about the kind of institutions that foster innovation. Driving change will require synthesis between the results of digital technologies, economics, self-reflection, resonance and citizen science.

Reflecting on his time as chair of the European Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP), Professor Vogel also suggested that a central aspect of supporting citizen science will be open science agenda which focuses on grand societal challenges that shape daily lives. The OSPP has proposed that 15-25% of science resources are spent on enabling open research and data. This would make science reproducible, further foster innovation by enabling citizens to ask their own questions and produce a new generation of open scientists.

Natural history museums have a large role to play in a deep-rooted culture change in democracy and citizen science. Under Professor Vogel’s guidance, the Berlin Natural History Museum is becoming a scientific and political organisation that can engage citizens and encourage the use of scientific evidence to inform policy. The increasing number of natural history museums around the world in population-dense areas presents an opportunity for other institutions of this kind to also engage in citizen science initiatives, with the goal of improving scientific literacy and driving change.

Dr Alex Kell

Imperial College London