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.  

Learning to look after Orchards

Surrounding the Food Growing Hub, at Dundee Botanic Garden, there is a small orchard of apple, plum, pear and cherry trees donated by and planted by the Dundee Urban Orchard.  Last year the Hub members enjoyed watching the fruits appear and swell through the summer, and were keen to learn how to care for orchards, so offered to take responsibility for its care.  To help us on our way to becoming master orchard keepers we decided to invite Andrew Lear (also known as AppleTreeMan) to come to the gardens to teach us what on earth we should be doing to make the best, and most, of the fruit trees. And we decided to offer the opportunity to other members of the public and members of the Botanic Gardens staff too.

The Food Growing Hub is a small food growing space at Dundee Botanic Gardens, providing local residents with an opportunity to grow their own food.


So on a cold, snowy and rainy Monday morning, (the Monday after we’d been hit by the Beast from the East), sixteen of us gathered together in the warmth of the Education Centre, to soak up the knowledge Andrew has built over 30 years as a horticulturalist, working with fruit trees and orchards.

Folk travelled to garner Andrew’s wisdom from Aberdeen, West Lothian, Perth and Montrose, and whilst some people were starting out with orchards in their gardens or community projects, and wanted to know how best to care for them and train them.  Others had very mature and large trees that they were finding unmanageable and wanted to know how to bring them back under control.

AppleTreePruningWorkshopInside2 DundeeBotanicGarden 05.03.18

Andrew started by talking us through how an apple tree grows, as understanding this is critical for being able to make the right decisions about where and how to prune the tree.  He impressed upon us that cultivated apple trees are artificial plants, engineered by humans (a variety of apple is grafted onto an apple root stock that will control how much the tree grows), and so for the best fruit crop apple trees need to be managed and controlled, rather than allowed to grow wild and natural.  Andrew then talked us through how the choices about which branches and stems you cut, and how and where you cut them, affects the continued growth and shape of the plant and the amount of fruit you yield.  A couple of key principles included; wanting to encourage horizontal stems and branching, as here the tree puts more energy into producing fruit, than vertical stems and branches which put energy into making the tree grow tall; And LIGHT, LIGHT, LIGHT, as an all-important factor, trying to maximise the amount of light reaching each part of the tree, by making careful decisions about which branches to keep and which to remove.

Andrew took us out to the orchard to demonstrate the principles and talk us through the decisions he would make to prune the trees there, before getting us to have a go at practicing reading the trees and making those decisions ourselves.  Being a member of the Food Growing Hub, Andrew asked me to dive in and have a go, and as I started to put the ideas into practice, with some support from the rest of the group, I started to be able to see more clearly which branches were good to keep and which to remove.

AppleTreePruningWorkshop DundeeBotanicGarden 05.03.18

Apples trees need to be pruned yearly, to maintain and manage the first, second and third year growth that is taking place, and this pruning needs to be done in the winter, when the energy of the tree has been drawn down to the roots and branch growth isn’t taking place.  Having received the ‘Beast from the East’ last week, spring will be delayed for a few weeks longer, which gives us at the Food Growing Hub more chance to prune a couple of remaining trees at the orchard.  I certainly can’t wait to see how our pruning decisions influence the trees through the spring and summer of this year.

Andrew Lear runs a nursery growing fruit and nut trees, as well as working as a consultant and offering workshops on a variety of orchard topics.  For more information please visit:

Dundee Botanic Garden have an extensive programme of events and workshops throughout 2018 from practical horticulture through to botanical sciences. For more information please visit: