Evidence and opportunities: Incorporating citizen science into policy

27 April 2021


Reported by Anthony Lindley, CSaP Policy Intern (February-May 2021)

How can the evidence generated by citizen scientists best support the policymaking process? As part of the CSaP Policy Fellows’ seminar series on citizen science, Professor Alan Irwin (Department of Organization at Copenhagen Business School) discussed citizen science and how it fits into scientific evidence and the process of getting evidence into public policy.

Many of the advantages of citizen science are becoming widely appreciated, and an ever-increasing number of projects seek to make use of this resource. In addition to expanding the amount of scientific data that can be generated beyond what would be possible by institutional scientists alone, there are numerous potential benefits for participants. For instance, involvement in a citizen science project can improve scientific literacy and level inequalities between experts and the wider population. As increasing numbers of people become involved with citizen science and the variety and scope of projects expand, policymakers must consider the relationship between policy and this form of scientific evidence.

How does citizen science fit into the wider landscape of scientific advice taken into consideration for policy decisions? Currently, such advice makes its way into policy decisions through scientific advisory committees, journal papers and technical reports, pressure groups, consultancies, and commissions. Professor Irwin discussed the 2019 EU Making Sense of Science Report, an attempt to bring together several decades of thinking about the interface between science and policy. The report identified several key factors critical to the successful incorporation of scientific advice into policy: the need for knowledge brokers, for long-term relations, trust and a balance between science and democracy.

Given the unique characteristics of advice generated through citizen science which distinguish it from conventional expert evidence, would an entirely new paradigm be more appropriate? Participants in this workshop questioned whether it would be possible (and indeed desirable) to implement new routes into policy for citizen science which bypass or build upon the traditional frameworks. They also noted that the policymaking process occurs at multiple levels and in both planned and ad-hoc approaches; while asking at what levels citizen science can be most useful.

Several recent case studies were discussed which illustrate some of the advantages of citizen science as well as its at times uneasy relationship with policy. Vast quantities of health data have been generated, shared, and analysed by citizens during the covid pandemic. Apps such as Zoe in the UK have collected self-reported symptom data from across society and provided the government with far more information about the spread of the pandemic and its effects than would have been possible via the health service alone. Policy Fellows discussed whether the appropriateness of labelling this form of evidence as citizen science to begin with, given that the users who upload their symptoms are often more survey subject than active participant. During the initial months of the pandemic, policymakers were reluctant to trust Zoe as a source of evidence, but it has since become a key resource for tracking both the spread of the coronavirus across the country and the type of symptoms experienced by those infected. This raises the issue of trust within the policy sphere; it is possible that evidence from Zoe would have made a positive impact should it have been accepted by civil servants and ministers sooner in the spread of the virus. How can government decisionmakers make use of these assets in a responsible manner and strike an appropriate balance between caution and haste?

During the covid pandemic several graphics and visualisations produced by ‘citizen data scientists’ have been widely shared, including the ‘flattening the curve’ illustration used by health ministers across multiple countries. Discussing these case studies, seminar participants touched on the challenges and nuances posed by the production of information by citizens from outside scientific institutions. Legitimacy and credibility are understandably more complicated to establish in these cases than when considering evidence from academic experts – but this does not lessen the validity of these contributions at all. Indeed, many of the ‘laypeople’ who contributed to the production of such analyses and visualisations were in fact qualified, professional data scientists in the private sector who were able to apply their considerable skill to these public health challenges essentially in their free time. This point touches on a potential problem for policymakers considering evidence from citizen scientists – can we ensure the inputs and opinions within these projects are representative of society as a whole?

The specific challenges of trust, credibility, representation, and responsibility do pose complicated questions about the nature of citizen science as a whole – is it a form of technical evidence or of public consultation? An extension of democracy or a rigorous scientific product? Professor Irwin and the Policy Fellows reflected on the discussions that should be held by policymakers to make the most of the resource of citizen science. It is important to clarify in what circumstances and across which domains citizen science can be effectively utilised, and to understand both the limitations of the involvement of laypeople as well as the advantages of wider participation. Policymakers should ensure that they are open to the benefits of using citizen science and develop processes to capitalise on the large numbers of people who want and are able to help improve the quantity and quality of evidence for policy decisions.

Organised exclusively for CSaP Policy Fellows and Continuing Fellows, this 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.