Public, Multi-stakeholder

Citizen Science, what it is & isn't

Hilary Sutcliffe

6 Dec 2017

Someone asked for my views on this interesting article on Citizen Science which is good but falls into the traps that many discussing citizen science fall into.  It's also quite fun but rather conspiracy laden for me!  Here are the views!


Like many articles on Citizen Science in conflates three different phenomena in my mind, which involve the non-scientist in scientific endeavour and misses out entirely on one of the most important.  It’s also a bit hysterical for my liking, but quite readable so will forgive that.  


Crowd Sourcing Science

This to me is the ‘real’ citizen science, which is people participating in scientific experiments under their own steam who’s data either contributes to or constitutes the data and output for the project.  Bird counting, the Serengeti project, Galaxy Zoo etc etc.  This makes a serious and significant contribution to the body of knowledge on a subject using what I think of as ‘crowdsourcing methods’.    


Because project leaders make the effort to make it fun in order to have people participate and because they can claim ‘citizen participation’ they get ticks in boxes of impact and other things, some perhaps a little spuriously, but basically it is good science or social science, done by non-scientists.  The public enjoys it because they are making a real contribution to something they care about and perhaps have a feeling of fulfilment in having put time in to something important and useful.    


It also counts as citizen participation, but I question whether it adds any great and new appreciation of Science with a capital S.  I would be surprised if you got much of ‘oh gosh I didn’t know how great science was until I counted the birds on my lawn and sent them the the University of Whatsitsname.”  But as that shouldn't be the point it doesn't matter.


As the author of the article says, this is not a fundamental shift in citizens shaping science and anyone who pretends it is is deluding themselves.  They are simply like additional market researchers.  Which I am not saying is bad, I think it is great and a good use of making the best use of limited public money for a good reason.


However, this is nothing at all to do with the rise of the citizen and death of experts and I don’t feel any great froth of indignation about governments and big science subverting citizens to the system through this approach.  But I can see with some of the examples such as the EPA one mentioned that this could get out of hand and can totally imagine the citizen as free worker scenario being correct. 


NB:  People who also say it isn’t ‘real’ science have probably chosen the wrong methodology for the job, much like a referendum isn’t the right methodology for assessing people’s views on the EU.


Citizen involvement in research

This is things like patient groups, where the citizen participates in the shaping of scientific research, in particular where they are the subject of that research.  So single disease activist groups, charities etc participating as partners or collaborators helping researchers understand the disease better, explore what outcomes may be best and helping with trials etc.  


These often do shape the research and contribute significantly to new approaches that wouldn’t happen without them.  Shortcomings for this might be that it often focuses only on one solution to a problem, and so may not facilitate a great debate about wider systemic issues or non-scientific alternatives.  


In addition it doesn’t help with the slippery slope arguments and the concerns about  ‘should we just because we can’ debates because these people are usually dying or their lives horribly curtailed by the issue and quite naturally they want it sorted.


The use of citizen involvement as a deliberate and malign attempt to displace concerns about other aspects is a bit far-fetched for me.  We have a proliferation of other folks who are making quite a bit of noise in these areas, on-line activists, polling organisations like Aavez and the many others.  Though I do agree that this desperate need some in science seem to have to have us all have to verbally articulate how much we Love Science is very tedious and needy in the extreme!


Personally I am not either in too much of a tizzy about Patientslikeme and others because people contribute all the time to research for the good of others with no expectation of return, but because they feel their information (albeit shoppers surveys, blood donation of something like this) will benefit others and it’s no skin of their back to do so.   For me what the citizen gets out of it isn’t much different to the above, they are contributing to the greater good and are happy to do so.  I am sure there are many dilemmas I can’t think of, but of course misuse of data, misleading claims etc etc is just bad science and bad business.  So am assuming there is some safeguard in this area so that they are not being scammed and data sold on and on for other purposes and are clear from the outset the commercial purpose of the way their data is used.


As to this:  “Rather, it’s the consequence of a long period of immersion in the specific culture of a discipline, such that one begins to be able to perceive what are the valid questions, preferred methods, legitimate styles of research, and so on”, and the sentences that follow That’s bllx & back to where we started - science is rarified and the masses aren’t up to it.  Of course both Crowdsourced Science and Citizen Involvement in Research, as I describe above, have to have the serious scientific methodologies at their heart and it is the job of the researchers overseeing the work on behalf of the funder to ensure ‘valid questions, preferred methods, legitimate styles of research’. I don’t know many, if any, examples of where the citizens have got the cash themselves to do the science which is not overseen by those expert in scientific methodologies.  


Citizens using new technologies in scary ways

This is basically the biohacking type stuff, and to me fits the box of ‘OMG what the hell are we doing letting citizens do this they don’t know what they are doing’.  


This is not citizen science, it isn't even science, it’s the use of a technology perhaps potentially irresponsibly, or not, by people because it is allowed tho may be risky, or where it is so new it should be restricted because no-one knows what bad things could happen if they get it wrong.  Maybe this belongs in the same box as 3d printing guns, DIY explosives, or control of hazardous substances and the like, which for reasons of environmental and human health and safety, or broader societal impact need to be handled or controlled differently until risks are better understood.


I share a level of concern with him about this mainly for safety and social reasons, to have people who don’t really know what they are doing getting their hands on a very powerful tech which can do harm, with the mindset - Ooh this looks really fun, let’s have a go at manipulating DNA for x and y' is something to be very wary of.  


What he missed out:  Citizens shaping the scientific agenda and direction of research.


This is what the scientists are really worried about.  Just ordinary people who don’t know anything telling them what to research and curtailing their freedom to use public money for whatever purposes suits them.  In the UK they even shaped the direction of research funding in nanotech.  Shock horror.   (There did you get it, the little dig about public money, you see where I am coming from a little on that, tho see both sides).   On the one hand I agree with Dan Sarawitz in his excellent article in the New Atlantis ‘Saving Science’ that a lot of this blue sky science is cobblers and a waste of public money and good science more often comes out of collaborations and with a distinct purpose.  On the other hand, people thinking bit thoughts also helps interesting things happen, so it needs to be both.


However this is also central and important for two reasons:

  1. Folks in labs and people in ivory towers don’t know as much as they think they do about what is needed to solve the problems we all face.  They need to get out there to listen and collaborate more with real people.  These people may not be experts in the field of research but are in others, such as sustainability,  or have knowledge even if it is just ‘being a person like me’ to understand that and create the right solutions to the right problems.  
  2. If we don’t think it’s beneficial, if you haven’t thought through the negative impacts and you try to push something on us that we don’t really want and we don’t agree is beneficial then we will rebel.  I don’t need to say GMOs to the people here, but none of us would have a job if that had gone differently.  

So getting stakeholder views either through non academic literature review, direct consultation,media scraping, collaborative research at all stages from defining research directions to involvement with research projects is another aspect of citizen science.   This is probably to use the horrible EC acronym more like SWAFS - science with and for society, but involves citizens at all critical stages.  It’s terribly dangerous you know!!


The conspiracy theory - “If anything, the objective of citizen science is to render the population more docile”.  

My lovely husband can find a conspiracy in pretty much everything, this is based on his innate scepticism, glass half-full nature and fundamental belief that everyone is out to get him.  I’m the opposite, it is in my genes and life experience to think the best of everyone and be, as he calls it, ‘relentlessly optimistic’.  I think perhaps Philip would have more in common with him than me, as he seems to have little evidence for the big conspiracy, which could be the key to his view!  Not that I don’t think there are those in science, (I met a GM scientist last week and nearly punched him), who think the citizen should be docile and is totally incapable of contributing rationally to anything related with science.  But a Big Government/Big Science conspiracy - Nah, they are far too incompetent and disorganised.