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AAAS Colloquium on Citizen Science, CSA Director's Remarks

From remarks by CSA’s Interim Executive Director, Jennifer Shirk, at the  AAAS Citizen Science Colloquium (9 JAN 2018).

Ordinarily I like to focus on achievements and successes, in part because there are so many to share and so many that don’t get enough attention. But others on this panel today can illustrate successes better than I can [Sam Droege, USGS; Allison Cawood, SERC; Paula Wang, Audubon Naturalist Society].

Instead, I’d like to set the stage with a timely challenge and a call to action, potentially for all of us here but particularly for our two Associations that share a deep interest in the integrity of both scientific research and public engagement.

Here is how this challenge has recently been voiced by colleagues, in a Nature Correspondence published back in November. Florian Heigl and Daniel Dörler are co-founders of the Austrian Citizen Science Association, and they wrote:

“Citizen science must not become what its critics claim it to be: poor science with great communication potential.”

I argue that this statement illustrates not just one but TWO of the most underappreciated – and yet two of the most powerful – aspects of citizen science.

First, I will argue that we do not pay enough attention to the research outcomes of citizen science. Too often citizen science gets touted – and funded – as a great way to do public outreach, or broader impacts. Citizen science can, of course, do both of those things. But if that is the primary focus, the research outcomes can be hidden, not acknowledged as citizen science, or not trusted.

We need to do more to bring attention to the research success of citizen science for many reasons, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Before I am mistaken for privileging research outcomes over all other kinds of outcomes, let me clarify.

Research into citizen science of all forms indicates that in many – not all, but many – citizen science projects, science outcomes and scientific evidence are major motivators to public participation… whether that’s discovery of something new or securing defensible evidence to address a problem. Members of the public take part because they believe their work can make a difference – NOT because they want to learn. Therefore, if we give short shrift to the science in citizen science, we do an injustice to the time and energy that everyone is investing into these endeavors.

The second concern I see revealed in the Nature Correspondence statement is that of framing citizen science as having “great communication potential.”
I have great appreciation for everything that the science communication movement is doing for science and even for citizen science. However, I’d like us to think about the difference between communication and engagement –  AAAS has been a leader in helping the field to understand these nuances. Oversimplifying, I’ll say that this is less about what they can learn from us. Rather, citizen science is more about what can we can learn together.

I argue that the opportunity and the REAL potential of citizen science is only unlocked when we start to think in this kind of a frame – beyond the defecit model learning, and towards dialog and mutual learning.

In some ways this can be as fundamental as listening to and understanding the audiences we are trying to connect with through citizen science. The “if you build it they will come” approach to citizen science is generally doomed to failure, even with the most charismatic species, if you don’t know what your audience needs or gains out of contributing.

But engagement can be much deeper than that. In my own research, I have seen strong indications that scientists who have sustained their involvement see citizen science as a way to enhance their research work – to do their science in new ways or with new purpose.

The opportunity to engage – to really listen, and to understand not just participant motivations but also participant concerns, insights, and ideas –  is what can move citizen science from research outcomes to research impacts. This may be asking new kinds of questions, doing more problem-focused research, or engaging the skills and connections of the community in order to make new kinds of insights possible.

All of this can call for the scientific community to adopt new ways of thinking about the public and about public engagement, and ways of thinking and skills that scientists are trained in and aren’t rewarded for. It takes time to build relationships, it takes creativity and openness to change to really listen to ideas that don’t fit our paradigms.

The opportunity for deeper engagement and mutual learning happens to be one of the things that sets citizen science apart from other ways of engaging with the public, and is why I suggest that thinking about citizen science as JUST communication vastly misrepresents both what citizen science can do and what it takes to do that well.

So how do we address these challenges?

The way forward suggested by the brief Nature Commentary is to standardize a method for citizen science. While the piece is too brief to explain what that means, I would like to suggest that there is danger of this approach missing the mark.

Codifying a single approach to citizen science diminishes the richness and innovation of this expanding field. And there are already standards for science. If we need clearer guidelines for doing something well, it would be around the engagement side – but even so, we don’t so much need a standard approach to engaging the public. What we need is a broader appreciation and understanding of how to do so in meaningful and robust ways.

If I had to suggest one way forward – one among many, but one not currently underway – it would be to invest in the visibility at professional science associations of what citizen science really looks like, both in terms of the research potential and the necessary investment in (and value of) public engagement.

Scientists – whether research or applied scientists – are influential in the design and implementation of PPSR projects, and their perceptions of the public and of public engagement can frame the learning opportunities and outcomes that are possible. It is likely that citizen science calls for fostering, incentivizing, and rewarding new kinds of skills and roles among scientists and professionals at scientific institutions. And we need not just those who are doing citizen science but also those who are reviewing citizen science – papers, proposals, tenure packets – to have a richer appreciation for the type of work and investment citizen science takes and the actual (not assumed) value it offers.

This is a role that associations can begin to help play – potentially AAAS but particularly the Citizen Science Association. I welcome the opportunity to engage thoughts of this convened panel and audience as we consider additional ways forward to enhance this growing field.

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