Realising the potential of citizen science

Taking a Survey_Flickr_CIMMYT
Copyright: Flickr/CIMMYT

Speed read

  • Citizen science allows scientific enquiry to draw on diverse forms of knowledge
  • But it is less common in the global South due to capacity and funding restraints
  • Encouraging citizen science projects could start by engaging education ministries

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Tapping into the public's capacity to help produce science brings familiar problems and opportunities for change.
It is hard to argue against the value of community participation in scientific inquiry.
Citizen involvement can build large-scale experiments more efficiently than might otherwise be possible. For example, the logic and mechanics of computer gaming are being used to engage citizens in data collection and problem solving — as with the EyeWire online project that says 60,000 participants in 100 countries have contributed to mapping the retina.
It is also seductively in step with the zeitgeist — and the proliferation of new technology has bought renewed attention to it.
Earlier this year, the UN's High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda called for a data revolution drawing on new technology for citizen engagement; Bond, the UK development network, is planning a working group on technology; and SciDev.Net is itself organising a meeting on big data in February 2014. 
Allowing more people to contribute data and reflections for free reduces costs. It also increases the spin-off benefits as projects become informal education settings.
Perhaps the most compelling benefit of all was captured by the late founding director of SciDev.Net, David Dickson. In an editorial published in 2002, he wrote: "experience, and the way that it is handed down through generations … often holds vital keys to our understanding of both the human and natural environment".
In effect, citizen science can allow scientific enquiry to draw on diverse forms of knowledge and perspectives.
In the context of international development, the prospects are particularly interesting. Through the active participation of individuals, citizen science offers a chance to engage with local contexts in a way that bodes well for the roll-out of any innovations, suggesting local ownership and adaptability.
Collection not analysis
However, there are challenges to the practice in the developing world.
The most obvious is that opportunities for participation are fewer than in the global North. Gaming is not as popular in the developing world, citizens do not typically have extra cash to fund amateur science and there are fewer scientists per capita.
What this means is that communities are more likely to be engaged in data collection than analysis. This is particularly irksome as universities across the global South have been engaged in a concerted effort to move beyond the role of glorified enumerators for peers in Northern universities.
In this context, citizen science could become another means of reproducing an egregious power structure that we see in more formal research settings.
Natural-resource monitoring
The Mapping of the Congo project provides a useful illustration of other concerns.
The project, which aims to help communities in the region of Brazzaville manage natural resources and monitor logging activities in the forest, relies on mobile phones in a region where wireless connectivity is poor.

“Experience … often holds vital keys to our understanding of both the human and natural environment.”

David Dickson

Its success depends on the responsiveness of civil society organisations when breaches in good forestry practice are reported — but their capacity to react cannot be taken for granted. They have their own governance challenges.
And as Oxfam's Duncan Green notes, NGOs have a long way to go to develop a more sophisticated appreciation of what science is capable of contributing to development. In addition, for the Congo project to be scaled up, deliver significant results and have a sustained impact, substantially more funding is required.
Opportunity or liability?
When one considers these rather old-fashioned structural and governance challenges, citizen science in the developing world cannot be seen as a way to work around deficiencies in scientific capacity — in fact, it could exacerbate them.
It might be seen to create as many needs as it proposes to alleviate. After all, who is going to facilitate the methodological and technical innovations necessary for large-scale community participation?
Of course we should not underestimate the technological leapfrogging that has already given rise to the Silicon Savannah in Kenya, and the regional competitiveness this appears to have engendered. Such entrepreneurship can lead to innovative ways of citizen participation and can help shape global practice.
But there is a more profound opportunity here for developing countries — and it might be best appreciated by looking at the history of citizen science in the West.
Gentleman scientists
Citizen science is a new term but an old idea. Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton were all 'gentlemen scientists': non-professionals typical of scientific practice prior to the twentieth century.
Although by the 1960s science was characterised by the professional researcher, by the late 1970s some were calling for a return to the 'good old days'. And at that time, the philosopher Paul Feyerabend called for the democratisation of science.
By no coincidence, it was around this time that the term citizen science was first coined in Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. Ecology, like astronomy, is traditionally an area of study that has drawn on community participation quite heavily.
Over the past four decades, expectations of citizen science have increased in terms of the numbers who can participate as well as the overall quality of the science produced as opportunities for its practice increase. And the professionalisation that has evolved since then in the field provides an opportunity to build the structures that drove the technical advances of the twentieth century, but in a new way.
Making science accessible
Such a new world would include scientists in — and from — NGOs and indigenous communities, reinventing the idea of the classroom and opening new spaces to have conversations with policymakers.
Exposure to more science would make it more accessible and relevant to communities, and encourage a democratic movement for science investment.
A welcome first couple of steps would be engaging education ministries in citizen science projects and developing curriculum-compatible training materials on essential science for participating communities and civil society organisations.
It is a compelling vision and one that should appeal equally to scientists, development professionals and their beneficiaries alike.
Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net