Engaging Scientists in Citizen Science

Much of the conversation and focus of research in the field of citizen science is about:

  • How do we engage more citizens in science research?
  • How do we motivate them to participate?
  • How do we retain their engagement throughout the whole lifecycle of a project and beyond?

These are really critical questions of central importance to the development of the field and for which much attention must to be continuously paid, particularly as the concept increases in popularity and the types of participants diversify in their character.  But after attending the Australian Citizen Science Conference in Adelaide, in February of this year (2018), I found myself asking whether, in focusing on the how to engage citizens we had neglected to pay attention to how we engage scientists?

Understanding what motivates, engages and retains citizens in citizen science projects is utterly essential to the practice of citizen science.  You can’t have citizen science, without citizens.  And the conference revealed and shared some effective and sometimes overlooked ideas such as:

  • Rather than asking potential participants to come to you, go to where they are already engaged and active.  K Mills & Simon Branigan (The Nature Conservancy, Australia) working with shell fish reefs, found that approaching dive clubs was the highly effective for them, as divers are already engaged and enthusiastic about the marine environment.
  • Operate at the time scale of your participants. Emilie Ens (Macquarie University) who works with indigenous communities in the Northern Territories of Australia, found that operating on indigenous time scales led to successful engagement with this group.
  • Make it a social opportunity. Erin Roger, Geetha Ortac (New South Wales Office of Environment & Heritage) & Ingrid Garland (EnviroComm Connections)  , both highlighted the power and importance of offering social opportunities, either by having BBQs and parties to reward, celebrate and bond as a group, or simply by holding meetings and engaging in social media communications.

But at the beginning of Day 1 of the Conference in a workshop entitled ‘New Visions for Citizen Science and Public Policy in Australia’ a couple of little snapshots of conversations suddenly highlighted to me how little of my attention had considered the need to engage, motivate and retain scientists as much as the need to do so with citizens.

Whilst of course scientists are already engaged in citizen science (the majority of citizen science projects are run and/or developed by scientists), the extensive literature directly addressing the validity of citizen science as an approach shows there is still much work to be done to convince the wider scientific community of the legitimacy of such an approach.  Through my few years as a citizen science practitioner and researcher I have certainly met many scientists (and some citizens for that matter) who are sceptical about the idea that citizens should and can be involved in the scientific process, without undermining scientific rigour.

It was a statement from Lea Shanley (Co-Executive Director, US South Big Data Innovation Hub) that really brought to my mind the idea that we need to pay more attention to engaging scientists, when she explained that when her and her colleagues are trying to advocate the concept of citizen science to the scientists in their institution they often start by saying:

               “’If you could have a 100,000 people to help you with your science what would you do?”

What it made me realise was that in the same way that we look to generate ideas about new and powerful ways of advocating the concept to citizens and convincing them that citizen science might be something they’d like to participate in, we also need to think of new and powerful ways of advocating citizen science to scientists.

We often talk about the need to make citizen science relevant to citizens so that they are motivated to participate.  And what the statement that Lea offered us in Adelaide, cleverly does, is pose that relevance back to the scientists.  Instead of saying to them, citizen science will help you to collect more data distributed across a bigger area, which can often raise a number of questions around validity and quality from the scientists.  The statement presents the resource potential to the scientist and asks them to consider the relevance of that potential to them, on their terms – “What would you do?”  What is also very clever about the statement is that by being hypothetical it frames the concept of citizen science as an opportunity without limits.  It invites the scientist to dream and explore the potential for their research of having access to a huge human resource that their funding streams could never support.

It seems to me that by piquing the interest of scientists by framing citizen science as a human resource opportunity that they can approach within their own boundaries, you can then open up a conversation about a variety of different success stories already evidenced in the literature and practice, presenting scientists with a suite of tools and methods to use to suit their needs.  And from here open up a conversation about best practice, and what we so far know works and not.  Having framed the conversation around “what would you do?” dialogue may even draw out some new suggestions and innovations for practice, having brought a new perspective to the approach.  But what Lea also mentioned which seems highly important, is that these conversations were most effective when taking place between two scientists, particularly if the citizen science advocate in the conversation is a high-profile scientist.

So far, this is the first step for me in considering and exploring how we approach and discuss citizen science with other scientists, and in considering them as much an audience, as we consider citizens.  My work as a researcher and practitioner, so far, has been very much focused on citizens as an audience, and how we meet their needs.  And in my PhD research I am focused on collecting and expressing the voice of the citizens involved in projects, to address to what extent we are serving their needs as communities, when we practice citizen science.  On the flip side, we also need to consider these questions with regards to the scientists involved, to understand their motivations and barriers to adopting and participating in citizen science.  At the end of the day, which ever approach to citizen science that you take it is a partnership and collaboration between both citizens and scientists, and so we need to understand the experiences of both.

For anyone interested in reading a bit more on this topic, I’d recommend: RIESCH, H. & POTTER, C. 2014. Citizen science as seen by scientists: methodological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Public Understanding of Science, 23, 107-120. (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963662513497324) Having interviewed scientists who participated in the OPAL citizen science programme, in the UK, the authors present the scientist’s perspectives on the methodological and ethical issues of such an approach.

My attendance at the conference was generously sponsored by three different organisations, the Australian Citizen Science Association who granted me a travel scholarship, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design with whom I am studying for my PhD, and finally the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) who fund my PhD.  I am sincerely grateful to all three parties for supporting me in this opportunity.



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