Principles to practice: why is citizen science so hard?

18 March 2021


Reported by Samuel Ward, CSaP Policy Intern, and Katie Cohen, CSaP Researcher.

Professor Muki Haklay of University College London led the final session in CSaP’s latest series on citizen science by returning to two fundamental questions: Why citizen science is so hard and how can we make it any easier?

Citizen science isn’t new. In 1835, William Whewell recruited roughly 650 volunteers from countries around the world to aid his study of ocean tides. These volunteers gathered data every 15 minutes for two weeks, generating roughly a million physical data points in the process. Throughout history, there have been similar studies, influencing policies around naval applications, planning, climate change and even cold war satellite monitoring.

So, why don’t we see citizen science playing the same roles as its more traditional counterpart? It’s not because it’s novel. Likewise, as the first seminar in this series pointed out, it’s unlikely to be because of the quality of data produced by citizen scientists either. Prof. Haklay gave some evidence-informed assertions that attempt to explain why. For one, “we don’t usually crowdsource because we want to, we do it because we have to.” And it is those institutions, which have experience, that are then the most likely to initiate future citizen science projects.

As to why this might be the case, it is helpful to understand that citizen science exists on a spectrum of design, and that these designs are not all compatible with a given institution’s culture. In many cases, adopting citizen science requires more command-and-control-oriented cultures, like those relying on highly trained, well-equipped individual specialists, to relinquish control to low-tech, distributed knowledge systems. Understanding the process, quality practices and community management of these systems can be difficult for the more centralised command-and-control cultures.

As well as being hard to adopt, citizen science can be hard to perform. Could we rely on citizens to report on the stocks of second-hand electronics shops? How about fireworks? It can quickly take the form of an enforcement body – a citizen’s police. Likewise, a lack of diversity in an app’s userbase can make it a driver of discrimination. How can we implement a scientific methodology without any unpleasant side effects? Ultimately, it requires working with citizens themselves to reformulate the problem and platform around them: “a desire for universal knowledge systems must be accompanied by a desire for understanding exactly who is supplying their information.”

In the UK, we can learn from the successful studies that tracked covid-19 symptoms. These worked culturally because scientists stepped in to open and oversee dialogue; scientists can encourage acceptance of new systems by acting as intermediaries between citizen science projects and policy makers. It is here, Prof. Haklay stressed, where individual “champions” are needed to exert pressure on and challenge institutions. On why we need these challenges, Prof. Haklay added that “all information sources are heterogeneous, just some are more honest about it.” In other words, we should be careful not to assume bias in citizen science without also critically re-examining the tools and systems we already have in place. That goes for science in general.

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.

Katie Cohen

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Samuel Ward

University of York