By Kieran Higgins @KieranHiggins16
I recently attended the British Science Association Annual Communication Conference, a wonderful event that took place on the 18th & 19th June at the Manchester Metropolitan University and have decided to share what I’ve learnt. Previously, I covered “What is Science Communication?”, the superb keynote from Jess Thom and the use of pop-ups. Today I’ll be discussing our workshop on citizen science.
This was a particularly difficult part of the conference program for me. I’m a massive proponent of citizen science and would be willing to bare knuckle box in support of it. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with organisations like Butterfly Conservation NI and CEDaR, whose important work relies almost totally on our citizen scientists. In fact, it is only in recent months that I can comfortably say I’ve made the transition from citizen scientist to “professional”.
However, many of my fellow attendees took a dim view of citizen science. Several people approached it from the viewpoint that citizen science was not real science. Why is this the case?
Firstly, the lack of noted collaboration extended to citizen scientists. If you and I work on a research project together, and that work comes to a paper, we receive an author’s credit on that paper (the order of the names, or what qualifies someone for authorship is a debate for another day). However, a citizen scientist transforms into that footnote under the conclusion thanking “everyone else” who contributed to the project.
Secondly, most citizen science projects, for the participants at least, become abstracted from the scientific method. These citizen scientists have not explored the literature, have not generated hypothesises and research questions, and are unlikely to be involved in any data analysis. Therefore, without the scientific method, the citizen scientists are just unpaid, untrained, anonymous technicians. The researcher is really just crowd-sourcing their data.
Lack of diversity was an issue that was highlighted on several occasions. Unfortunately citizen science, for the most part, remains the domain of retired white men. The demographic for citizen science in Northern Ireland is so much narrower that I can tell you exactly what religion they identify as and in what town they all live in.
Apologies while I build my digital soapbox, but I want to take this space to make my right of reply, which I didn’t quite get at the conference. Yes, there is a startling lack of diversity among citizen scientists. Yes, they remain anonymous. But the blame lies squarely at our doors as the scientists who coordinate these projects. We can’t blame these failings on the concept itself and walk away from it. If only retired white men participated in the project, then the coordinator didn’t reach out to all sectors of the community. If they were not appropriately credited on an individual level, that is the fault of the coordinator’s ego or a lack of manners.
Regarding the criticism centred on the lack of scientific method, I have one response. Scientists need to get over themselves. Today. Like right this instant. So what if they didn’t come up with a hypothesis or write a literature review? That is not the role of citizen science. Citizen science is there to facilitate the non-professionals’ love of science and educate the public on the importance of research. We need to dismiss the idea that science can’t be a hobby or a pastime, that a degree is required. All these problems with citizen scientists are of our own making and we have no right to criticise. We need to fix them instead.
The conclusion the group came to was that citizens should create their own project and scientists should be available to facilitate it. To be honest, I think creating a project that is based on community need and ideas is an honourable idea, but an impractical one. Funding this would be expensive, not to mention the immense effort required to ensure equity between communities. Ultimately, this could do citizen science more harm than good as it could produce some “silly” projects.
If anyone would like to my help or input on an outreach or communications project, please let me know.