Science

Citizen science needs to look more like society, report says

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A citizen science project to monitor climate change in California’s Joshua Tree National Park

Natural History Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Scientists who team up with the public to conduct research need to do a better job of including all segments of society. That’s one of the key recommendations in a new report on citizen science by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

“Citizen science project designers must grapple with issues of equity, diversity, power, and inclusion,” says the report, written by a 12-member committee chaired by Rajul Pandya of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), also in Washington, D.C. “They face these issues even if they do not set out to address diversity in their project and even when they are not consciously aware that these factors are at play in their project.”

The phrase “citizen science” covers both projects in which scientists enlist the public—using volunteers for a bird census or to monitor air and water quality, for example—and those in which residents seek help with a problem that requires technical know-how, such as assessing how rising temperatures might affect their community. Millions of people participate in such efforts, which can educate nonscientists about technical topics, show how science can benefit society, and broaden the scope of a particular research project.

Tapping a larger audience for these projects would benefit both scientists and the public, says Pandya, who runs AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange, a 5-year-old community science initiative that supports 70 projects throughout the United States and around the world. But the report warns against assuming that nonprofessionals will automatically learn about science by participating. “You have to design for it,” says Pandya, who’s based in Boulder, Colorado. “And that’s also true for equity and diversity.”

The burgeoning field of citizen science has its own professional associations and journals. But practitioners have not done a good job of documenting who participates, the report notes. An appendix refers to “an assumption” that participants are “generally white, older/retired females with an above-average education.” However, the evidence to support that assumption is so weak that the panel conducted its own meta-analysis of the literature.

That effort also came up short, Pandya acknowledges, because so many projects have failed to collect and analyze the demographics of participants or document the knowledge they have gained. At the same time, what the panel found supports the perception of an “overwhelmingly white and well-educated population” that is likely to participate repeatedly in citizen science projects.

That repetition can reinforce learning, Pandya says. He says that’s also true about other core elements of citizen science, such as giving laypersons a personal stake in the outcome and involving them in a communal activity.

Citizen science projects can also teach scientists something about themselves and their profession, Pandya says. In an unusually personal preface to the report, he argues that “citizen science poses questions about who participates in science, what it means to participate in science, who gets to decide what scientific questions to investigate, and even what kind of knowledge and practice count as science.”

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