Much water has run under the bridge of science since the Audubon Society launched the Christmas Bird Count in 1900, the first ever citizen science initiative. Many scientific disciplines including zoology, botany, ecology, palaeontology, chemistry, physics, and oceanography have jumped on the wagon that serious birders set on wheels over a century ago. Current examples include Galaxy Zoo, which involves non-astronomers in classifying galaxies, and National Geographic’s Field Expedition: Mongolia, whose participants analyse satellite images searching for potential archaeological sites. In these cases participation occurs fully in the realm of the virtual, but what about citizen science that allows you to get your hands dirty?
Just a stone’s throw away from our very own Queen’s lawn, Imperial College manages one of the biggest community-driven research programmes in Europe. The Open Air Laboratory, OPAL, is a community-led study of the natural world funded by the National Lottery. Sixteen partner institutions, including Imperial College, London’s Natural History Museum, the Open University and a major university from each of England’s nine regions, work together with local communities across the country with the key objective of getting more people outside exploring and recording the natural world, while conducting high quality research with maximum public involvement.
OPAL’s director, Dr. Linda Davies from Imperial College’s Centre for Environmental Policy says that the project was first inspired by the interest and curiosity passers-by commonly express to scientists conducting research in the field, manifesting an eagerness to learn more about science. With 1992 Rio Summit’s main areas of concern in mind, OPAL’s goal is to get local communities involved in issues regarding environmental degradation, biodiversity and climate change. For this, OPAL developed five National Research Centres: Air, Soil (both led by Imperial College), Water (UCL), Biodiversity (NHM and Open University) and the recently launched Climate Centre (UK Meteorological Office).
The main tool developed by each of OPAL’s centres is a survey kit designed to guide participants in the collection of data from their surrounding environment. For example the Soil Centre’s kit includes a magnifying glass, a field guide, and keys to identify different types of earthworm. The Climate Centre is nationally distributing 40,000 climate survey kits armed with compasses and mirrors among other tools, in order to measure vapour trail cover (which contributes to global warming), thermal comfort indices, and other climate variables. These kits are delivered for free to all interested parties, including individuals, schools and community associations.
Since OPAL’s goals are as much scientific as social, the kits also include questions such as: Is soil/water/air important? Do you like outdoor activities? Have you learnt anything new? Informally, the scientists involved say that OPAL has changed their perspective on working with the public. Traditionally, data collected by non-scientists has been regarded as unreliable, but the multiple data quality assurance controls set by the different centres (multiple sampling at single sites, identification quizzes, multiple samplers in any given day) has shown that most of the data collected by the volunteer non-scientists conforms to the high quality standards sound science demands. To better understand how OPAL has changed the participants’ views on the environment and on science and the scientists’ view on citizen science, OPAL has recently hired social scientists to explore the patterns emerging from the interaction between trained scientists and participants lacking formal science training.
Some have argued that citizen science can be an excellent social tool for engaging the public with science, but that it does not constitute real science, as its participants can be seen as data-collecting instruments instead of scientists. But this forced demarcation between social and scientific only pushes people away from the perceived ivory tower of science. Moreover, scientists do not operate on higher intellectual spheres at all times, much of their work also involves repetition and the performance of automated tasks. As well as analysing these interactions, some researchers have proposed that citizen science monitoring initiatives can also prove of immense importance in understanding why science has not effectively translated into policy in some areas (e.g. the IPCC assessment reports).
So, if we decide citizen science is a good thing for science as a whole, including public engagement with science, in order to increase participation we need to understand what drives people to devote their time and effort to such enterprises. The winner of the 2011 Best Paper Award at the iConference, held in Seattle on February 8-11, 2011, entitled Dusting for Science: Motivation and Participation of Digital Citizen Science Volunteers, found that different motivational factors were responsible for people’s participation in digital citizen science initiatives. The importance attributed to the project’s goals and the sheer enjoyment of partaking in it were the primary reasons to participate, whereas gaining a reward (professional recognition, or learning a new skill) did not seem to play an important role.
This and other studies of digital citizen science initiatives suggest that to retain the participants’ enthusiasm and effort, dynamic and entertaining contribution environments need to be promoted — like open source software development and Wikipedia routinely do by rewarding contributors with increasing levels of responsibility and involvement. As more and more digital citizen science initiatives spring to life in the Web 2.0 era, the possibilities of such environments are increasingly becoming realised.
Hopefully, as citizen science initiatives continue to appear across scientific disciplines, the ensuing competition for participants will lead to the empowerment of volunteer contributors: allowing them to have more of a say on project development and decision making. Such redistribution of power would engage all actors so as to weaken the distinction between professional scientists and untrained contributors.
Nelida Pohl is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College and is an Editor of Refractive Index.