by Luke Phelan, DLINQ Instructional Designer

What is a scientist?  Who gets to be one?  Who decides?

The production and dissemination of knowledge are primary goals of the academy.  However, the increasing specialization of experts and the training required to access and enjoy the fruits of this labor is in tension with small-d democratic norms and ideas of equity, equality, and fairness. This tension only heightens when science and research are underwritten by governments, and carried out at state and state sponsored institutions. Public distrust of science, and the widening access gaps that lead to low scientific literacy, further exacerbate the divide between the public and scientists who are generating research and data to understand and address, say, the environmental challenges facing our world. Enter “citizen science,” something of a catch-all term that tries to capture multiple attempts to reduce and manage conflicts by intentionally including non-experts in, variously, data collection and interpretation, policy and decision making, communications and popularization, and agenda setting.

The diversity of these aims is indicative of the heterogeneity of the stakeholders in both the science and the citizenry, and the enduring grip of experts as gatekeepers.  “Well-known citizen scientists include Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin,” asserts the wikipedia article on Citizen Science. Wikipedia as a project is at least in the penumbra of citizen science, with policies and procedures that explicitly aim for wider popular participation, and with results that are left as an exercise of the judgment of the reader. That the most contemporary notable practitioner, Ms. Nightingale, died in 1910, suggests that the term “well-known citizen scientist” belongs to another age.

Indeed, in recent decades the aims and practices of citizen science have decidedly turned away from individual achievement and towards the wisdom of crowds and their sourcing, not to say funding.  The rise of “big data” – the dissemination of computing power to gather, analyze, and transmit observations and results – has catalyzed a new use for citizen science, with particular applications for ecology, environmental studies, and conservation.  A number of websites, platforms, and more recently apps have been developed to support projects, practitioners, and communities.

The US federal government’s contribution to these efforts is citizienscience.gov, which mission statement is worth quoting at length for its own sets of tensions:

CitizenScience.gov is an official government website designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government. The site provides a portal to three key components: a catalog of federally supported citizen science projects, a toolkit to assist federal practitioners with designing and maintaining their projects, and a gateway to a community of hundreds of citizen science practitioners and coordinators across government as called for in the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2016 (15 USC 3724).

As of this writing, there are 493 projects in the catalog.  Readers in Vermont might be interested in exemplary endeavors such as the actively recruiting project American Woodcock Singing-ground Survey (citizenscience.gov catalog entry; US Fish and Wildlife page), or this now completed project that ran in the Brattleboro area, Citizen Scientists: Making a World of Difference (citizenscience.gov catalog entry; city of Brattleboro page).

iNaturalist, a collaboration between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, is a widely used platform for identifying and recording observations of every kind of living thing. It hosts close to 5 million registered users, nearly one hundred thousand projects, and just broke over 100 million individual observations.  Projects on iNaturalist run the gamut from monitoring species abundance, like the Australian Christmas Beetle Count, to the social, like the LGBTQ+ Naturalists group, to the historical, like the First Known Photographs of Living SpecimensOver 2,000 research publications have made use of the dataset.

Take Action

There are a range of citizen science efforts, from projects to platforms, at scales local to global.  These are a few to start dabbling.

Keep Reading

Creating Positive Environmental Impact Through Citizen Science, Toos (C. G. E.) van Noordwijk et al.

What is Citizen Science? From the National Parks Foundation

Can citizen science empower disenfranchised communities? The Conversation

Perspective: The Power (Dynamics) of Open Data in Citizen Science, Cooper et al.

The threefold potential of environmental citizen science – Generating knowledge, creating learning opportunities and enabling civic participation, Turini et al.