Citizen Science is not all it is cracked up to be

William Shakespeare wrote the play As You Like It over 400 years ago. It contains a famous monologue, often referred to as the Seven Ages of Man – although, if Bill were writing it today, it should no doubt be called the Seven Ages of Humans. It begins, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” The major point that Shakespeare makes is that there are several ages (seven to be precise) or acts that we go through as we mature. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that stages of maturation are common to any growing thing, even something as obtuse as an academic discipline like science communication.

Eight years ago, in the commentary pages of the Journal of Science Communication, there erupted a bit of a debate as to whether science communication even qualified as an academic discipline. Certainly, as a formal endeavour – academic or otherwise – it is comparatively young, tracing its birth to the mid 1980s. The main argument against science communication being a discipline is that it lacks anything close to a theoretical framework like, say, physics or biology. Sure, over the last four decades there has been a progression of “models” of science communication that have variously found favour, but it is delusional to call them theoretical frameworks or, even, models of communication. They are really just “descriptions” of science communication as it is practiced. And there has been no evolution or development of these so-called models of communication, as some purport, but rather, simply periods where there is a prominence of one form of communication over others. Some would have us believe that the latter indicates science communication has expanded its conceptual frameworks and is maturing marvellously – moving from the Deficit model (already laden with negative connotations by the use of that name) to the Dialogue model to Citizen Science, or, as I prefer to call them: one-way, two-way and participatory forms of communication. But these are merely descriptors of how science communication may be practiced, not some theoretical breakthrough like that of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which explained anomalies in the orbit of Mercury.

Citizen science is currently the flavour of the month in science communication circles. These days conferences on science communication are dominated by citizen science and the prominence it plays in their proceedings. Citizen science involves public participation in scientific research as a means of engaging members of the public in science.

Is that a good thing? Of course. Certainly, it is unlikely to be a bad thing. However, we need to keep some perspective. Citizen science is not the bee’s knees: it is not the culmination of some theoretical understanding that is the science communicator’s equivalent of moving from Creationism to Lamarckism to Darwinism. It is just a way of doing our business, and, it has to be said, a limited one at that.

I shall confine myself here to just three of those limitations.

The Value of Citizen Science to Science

With a few notable exceptions, citizen science rarely produces high value science. Sure, citizens are proving valuable when it comes to whale research or the search for extra-terrestrial life. Yet, even there, they participate in the science by becoming glorified “sensors” or data gatherers for the actual scientists involved in the research. Science is more than just the doing: it is a whole process from conceptualisation, observation and experimentation, to analysis, interpretation and, most importantly, publication. Citizens may help scientists but, for the most part, they are not equipped for those parts of the scientific process that are required to give a study scientific meaning. Often, studies that fall under the guise of citizen science are not rigorous enough to contribute much to the advancement of knowledge. Do they have value for the participants and as a means of engaging with science? Absolutely. However, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The term citizen science suggests that it is science carried out by citizens, when in reality the “science component” of citizen science is typically either at a low-level or it is science that is still being conducted by scientists and the citizens are largely their means of collecting data.

Citizen Science does not Scale

When done well, citizen science can be a powerful way of engaging members of the public in science and even co-creating the science. One such example is the Uawanui Sustainability Project, which is a community-led initiative in New Zealand’s Tolaga Bay aimed at sustainable land management. The community of Tolaga Bay, including the local indigenous people, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, are working with scientists from the Allan Wilson Centre, as well as receiving input from such science-focused bodies as the Royal Society of New Zealand, the MacDiarmid Institute, and many of New Zealand’s universities. I’ve been to Tolaga Bay as part of a celebration of science there and the results are truly remarkable: it has transformed from a low socio-economic backwater with low educational outcomes for its citizens, into a community of people highly engaged with science and, encouragingly, this can be seen especially in the young indigenous Maori children. However, the whole population of Tolaga Bay consists of only 768 people and the funds poured into the community and the Uawanui Sustainability Project amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. The problem is that there are over 7 billion people in the world today, all of whom could benefit from sustainable land management, but the costs of providing the necessary input and support to get results like those in Tolaga Bay do not scale: there is no way we could afford to roll such a programme out over even a tiny part of New Zealand, let alone the whole world.

Citizen Science needs more and better Evaluation

Of course, some will argue that even low-level inexpensive citizen science projects are valuable in terms of getting members of the public engaged with science. And they may well be – but the issue here is that often we just don’t know. I get all the arguments about the relative merits of qualitative versus quantitative research methods and the distinctions between them, however, as science communicators we are often guilty of under-evaluating our work. Ironically, we claim to be experts at communicating the results of a discipline that is defined by its rigour (science) without applying that same rigour to our own work. I cannot tell you the number of times I have sat through presentations about citizen science at science communication conferences and the only evidence put forward to justify this approach to communication has been a series of selected quotations from a small sample of the participants. Give us all a break: show us some rigorous evaluation.

None of this should be taken as an argument against citizen science. Participatory forms of science communication are powerful tools in our toolbox for fostering engagement with science, knowledge transfer, and altering attitudes and behaviours. They are not, however, a higher form of science communication that is inherently better than one-way or two-way tools for communication. Each has its place.

Until we develop a theoretical framework for our developing discipline, science communication will remain in its infancy. Or, as William Shakespeare would put it, “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.”


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