Citizen Science Relationships, Scientific Standards and Change Making – key insights from the ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’ workshop.

This blog summarises some of the key thoughts and themes that emerged from a two-day workshop organised and hosted by Alberta Environment and Parks and the Miistakis Institute, called ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’.  The workshop took place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada from Wednesday 26th September to Thursday 27th September.

With a growing network of citizen science activity taking place across Alberta, Alberta Environment and Parks and the Miistakis Institute decided to help further incubate and foster this participatory research activity, by bringing together practitioners, researchers and citizens to share knowledge and best practice in order to identify priority actions for advancing practice in the province.

I was privileged to be invited to speak on the opening panel session ‘Origins, Evolution and Where We Are Today’ alongside Jennifer Shirk (Citizen Science Association and Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and Lea Shanley (US South Big Data Innovation Hub).  The rest of the programme explored data standards and credibility, place-based practice, the link between citizen science and environmental decision-making, and showcased a wide range of active projects.  The two days culminated in three workshop sessions.  The first looked to further develop principles and a memorandum on Citizen Science that would guide and encourage the adoption of citizen science in Alberta Environment and Parks.  The second workshop looked to identify priority outcomes for developing data credibility in citizen science, within the province.  And the third workshop drew on the expertise within the room to support the development of new and emerging citizen science projects.

Over the two days I found myself having some of the most enlightening conversations about citizen science that I have ever had in my five years of working in the field and attending international citizen science conferences.  Three key themes emerged from the conference that strike me as having a critical influence on how citizen science moves forward in the future.

  • Citizen Science, Science and Environmental Decision-making are all social processes as much as they are technical processes.
  • Citizen science has approached a crux; its holds significant promise, but high standards of practice must be maintained.
  • Citizen science is just one part of the process of making change. It is not a silver bullet.

Citizen Science, Science and Environmental Decision-making are all social processes as much as they are technical processes.

A key idea I tried to instil through my presentation was that ‘Citizen science is as much a social process as it is a scientific process’.  This was echoed and then expanded upon by Gwendolyn Blue (University of Calgary) in her keynote speech, who added that not only was citizen science a social process, but so too was science and environmental decision-making.  What’s key about this argument is that often when we examine and approach citizen science, science and environmental decision-making processes we focus on the technical aspects of these processes.  We concern ourselves with the structure and shape of the scientific and decision-making process.  What we forget to pay attention to is that all of these processes involve significant social interaction and negotiation that play a huge role in shaping the outcomes.  Citizen Science is not just about the design of methods and tools that enable citizens to participate, but it is also about the dynamics of the relationship and the engagement between citizens and scientists.  Creating an open, trusting, respectful environment that acknowledges and works with the values and assumptions of everyone involved and works to build genuine and mutual understanding is as important to realising citizen science outcomes as developing a data collection method suitable for the audience.  As scientists and citizen science practitioners we need to be more reflexive about how our values and assumptions play out when we are developing and managing citizen science projects.  We also need to be honest about the extent to which we are actually willing to open up the scientific process to different ‘publics’.

Citizen science has approached a crux: it holds significant promise, but high standards of practice must be maintained.

Jennifer Shirk, during the opening panel of the workshop, drew our attention to the possibility that we have arrived at a crux in the evolution of citizen science.  Citizen science risks becoming a buzz word.  As the concept is becoming increasingly popular the risk is that it will be adopted as lip service without true fulfilment of the core principles of delivering high quality scientific research with genuine citizen participation.  However, as this community and practice grows, we need to be careful that any steps to define principles or standards in order to maintain high standards, don’t unintentionally stifle the field by discouraging experimentation.  We need to reflect carefully on the nature of the principles and standards that we are developing, and on the way they are being utilised, to ensure that they allow for the evolution and innovation of new practices.

Citizen science is just one part of the process of making change.  It is not a silver bullet.

Increasing interest has grown around the role that citizen science can play in influencing policy and creating change and action in the world.  Indeed, it is the potential of co-created participatory research approaches to empower communities and support them in realising change that inspired me to take on my PhD research.  A prominent line of discussion and exploration in the workshop was around how we can use citizen science to influence environmental decision-making.  And whilst there are a number of fabulous examples of how citizen science can create positive change (eg. Flint Michigan), we have to recognise that citizen science is simply one tool among many for achieving change, and is in many cases not enough on its own.  Like policy, citizen science is not always capable of creating the necessary transformation on its own, often a significant cultural shift is required.  Reasons why citizen science can be limited in its ability to create change include the issue raised by Liz Hendriks (WWF- Canada) that decisions are often not evidence based but are made on a social, cultural and political basis.  In addition, citizen science still faces significant challenges to being respected as a valid and credible method of knowledge generation.  Where we accept that citizen science can only be one part of the process of change making Tracy Lee (Miistakis Institute) then made the valuable point that we need to understand what role citizen science does play in that process so that we can enhance the impact and influence we have through our projects.

 

These three themes, raised at the ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’ workshop, hit on some really fundamental challenges and considerations that the citizen science community need to address in order to support progression of the field.  And all three themes call on us as a community, and as individuals, to be more reflective and reflexive about our practice, our assumptions, our attitudes and our values.  The more that we take the opportunity to invest in our community of practice and to engage opening in dialogue around these issues, that more that the practice of citizen science will thrive and have a positive influence in the world.  Why not invest some time in your institution to start a citizen science discussion group, to start teasing out some of these issues, to ensure that your organisation is heading in a positive direction with citizen science.  

 

The views expressed above include my own but cannot be solely attributed to me.  The content above is my reflection of two days of dialogue with the whole delegation of the ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’ workshop programme.  I thank them all for their challenging and stimulating discussions.  

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