It’s the final day of Citizen Science Days, and the SciStarter team would like to thank all of our enthusiastic participants these past few weeks. If you’re looking for more, check out this review of “The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science” by guest contributor Devon Marie Moriarty:
A necessary primer for anyone interested in citizen science, this volume in “The Rightful Place of Science” series offers a compact crash course in the power, potential, politics, and pleasure of citizen science. Editors Darlene Cavalier and Eric B. Kennedy compile an enjoyable and informative anthology that refuses to reduce the growing movement of citizen science to a simplistic definition. Through a range of scholarly voices, perspectives, and case studies, the collection illustrates the fluidity of this rapidly changing field.
Cavalier opens the collection with a personal story, recounting experiences that defined her transformation into an unlikely citizen science advocate. Armed with a breadth of life experiences—from college student, to cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers, to a media executive — Cavalier has since founded Science Cheerleader, SciStarter, and ECAST. With a knack for captivating storytelling, Cavalier’s anecdotes are equal parts revealing and refreshing. Her lesson for us is that there are systemic and exclusionary barriers that prevent the public from engaging in scientific research and policy — making in a meaningful way. Citizen science, Cavalier tells us, is an innovative solution to this problem. Cavalier’s story could be anyone’s story, is her point. Her aim in building the citizen science movement is underpinned by a desire to “empower ordinary people to contribute to science, and … science policy debates.”
But science policy is perhaps the most difficult area to navigate when it comes to citizen science. In the next chapter, Kennedy untangles new policy challenges posed by citizen science, considering the ethical, legal, and logistical implications involved in the accommodation of citizen science by a government where “institutional mechanisms undermin[e] the kind and pace of innovation in citizen science methods.” Citizen science challenges the notion of a government-directed, contained, and funded science in a significant way. Taking citizen science as neither inherently good or bad, Kennedy makes a case for considering the accommodation of citizen science on a case-by-case basis.
And it is with this emphasis on cases that Caren B. Cooper and Bruce V. Lewenstein open their compact and engaging chapter on the “Two Meanings of Citizen Science.” Cooper and Lewenstein use two very different examples to explain the “two meanings” of citizen science. One, they tell us using the example of global bird watching networks, is “contributory” or “participatory.” Another kind of citizen science is more “democratized,” such as the citizen work involved in the 1980s AIDS epidemic, and allows every day people to “influence and transform the larger scientific enterprise.” They also take a look at the Flint Water Study, exploring the relationships between key actors including Michigan residents, an academic scientist, university students, and government agencies. The lesson here is that contributory citizen science can open opportunities for more democratic science collaborations.
But how do members of the public engage in citizen science when there is no immediate problem prompting them to act? Enter Robert R. Dunn and Holly L. Menninger, whose chapter on incorporating citizen science into school curriculums is the highlight of this collection. But perhaps I’m biased, having been raised by a horticulture teacher who, upon his recent retirement, was remembered fondly by students and colleagues alike for his innovative approaches to science education. Besides hatching chicks, tending to the greenhouse, and planning field trips to the Plowing Match, my dad and his students spearheaded a project to open one of the first outdoor classrooms in Ontario.
Dunn and Menninger emphasize this kind of movement away from demonstration science — where students learn only about what is already known — and encourage an approach to science education where teachers and students become co-investigators who can together engage in the messy process of learning. It is encouraging to see that their proposed approaches are rapidly being embraced by educators who themselves are tired of making the same volcanoes, showing the same films, and passively dissecting the same creatures year after year.
While incorporating innovative practices into the school curriculum is one way to inform the public about the power and potential of citizen science, Lily Bui turns her attention towards the role media plays in disseminating citizen science news. Citizen science’s bottom-up model complicates the traditional model of science journalism to share findings, and Bui tackles this challenge.
She suggests that micromedia, such as blogs and social media, are useful because they directly engage interested individuals. The heart of this chapter lays in Bui’s claim that publicly-owned media (e.g., NPR, PBS, or BBC) are powerful allies for the citizen science movement. Noting that public media and citizen science share many of the same characteristics, Bui uses examples and flow charts to illustrate how a productive citizen science mediascape might operate.
In the fifth chapter, Gwen Ottinger elaborates on a theme that has trickled through the collection: citizen science grounded in social movements. With a focus on activism, Ottinger explores politically-charged questions of expertise and legitimacy, suggesting that citizen science propelled by social movements is often met with resistance. Guiding readers on a journey of frustrating challenges and innovative solutions, Ottinger illustrates the tensions between credentialed scientists and activist citizen scientists, and the values they hold dear. While these collaborations require that participants make trade-offs, they often result in science with a social purpose, and are a testament to the resilience and practicality of citizen science.
Moving away from activist movements and towards everyday citizens getting involved in science, David Coil’s “Citizen Microbiology: A Case Study in Space,” considers education, experimentation, and participation. After explaining just what microbes are, Coil uses tangible examples to demonstrate how citizen participation in microbiology can not only contribute to scientific advancement, but also educate the public on matters of science. Looking closely at the Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on ISS (International Space Station) (MERCCURI), Coil recounts often humorous challenges encountered in the project and how these hurdles were overcome. Coil corroborates an overarching theme in this book, that citizen science is messy and complicated but also incredibly productive and rewarding.
As Cavalier and Kennedy conclude, “[in] its richest form, citizen science has the power to transform science and society.” In a taut 133 pages, Citizen Science gives readers a glimpse of its transformative power; but it is as much a call to action, as it is an informative handbook. Written by those on the front lines of citizen science, this will be a timely and important addition to the bookshelves of both newcomers and veterans alike.
Devon Marie Moriarty is a PhD Candidate in English Language & Literature, Rhetoric at the University of Waterloo. Her research examines political and science communication in online environments.