A unified field theory for public participation in scientific research

Disparate citizen science disciplines come together at the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer

public participation in scientific research conference Aug 4-5 in Portland, OR

The idea of a big, cross-disciplinary meeting had been floating around citizen science circles for a while. Though public participation in scientific research has deep roots in the history of science, in the last few years it has taken off spectacularly from launch pads across the disciplines of science and education, fueled by advances in communications technology and a sea change in a scientific culture now eager to welcome outsiders as collaborators. There was a feeling that the time had come to muster the leadership from their independent community science fiefdoms for an intellectual potlatch.

Citizen science, crowd-sourced science, DIY research, volunteer monitoring, community participatory action research – the variety of banners flying over participatory science projects reflects the diversity of their origins, from astronomy to zoology. Workshops had been organized before, notably by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but they were small, field-oriented, and unable to meet growing demand.

“The participatory science field has been growing, but in isolated silos. Even within the environmental sciences, the water quality people self-organize separately from the biology people,” said Abe Miller-Rushing, a science coordinator for the National Park Service up at Acadia National Park, in Maine. “We really wanted to have an open-invite meeting that emphasized innovation, and could kick-start conversations.”

So Miller-Rushing and a handful of scientists and educators hatched a plan to make their dream meeting happen. It all comes together on August 4th-5th as a conference-within-a-conference at ESA’s 2012 annual meeting in Portland, Oregon: the “Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference” (technically ESA’s “workshop #1” for organizational purposes, it starts early on Saturday morning, before ESA’s main event kicks off with the Sunday evening keynote).

“Jennifer and I were talking about this at a meeting, and I think Rick was there too, and we decided – hey, let’s just do it.” [Update, 8/2/2012: Rick Bonney phoned me to correct the record: the PPSR conference was actually conceived over a large pot of chili at Jennifer’s house, out in the woods near Ithaca, NY. The three (and Jennifer’s husband Sam, famous chili artist) got to rehashing the need for an open-invite meeting. “And Abe said, you know, I really think that we could pull this off if we worked with ESA on it.” –Thanks for the update, Rick!]

Miller-Rushing will open the upcoming conference with a presentation on the history of public participation in scientific research. He has a paper on the same topic, with Richard Primack of Boston University and Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in the upcoming August 2012 special issue of ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, “Citizen Science – new pathways to public involvement in research,” timed to coincide with the conference.

Other invited speakers hail from public health, biochemistry, education, geography, and atmospheric sciences, at universities, government agencies, and indigenous organizations.  Organizers expect over 150 poster presentations.

Jennifer Shirk, a conference co-organizer, has an article on “The current state of citizen science as a tool for ecological research and public engagement,” with Janis Dickinson and several more people from the Cornell Labs in the special issue. Other authors address the future of the field. The issue will be open access, and available on August 1st.

Citizen science projects give non-specialists the power to apply their curiosity about the natural world, and their love of puzzles and games, to real scientific questions. Projects have recruited naturalists and novices to classify galaxies, refine protein models, align DNA sequences, identify and count birds, record weather, and track plant and animal life through the changing of the seasons.

Many participatory science initiatives started with a researcher’s need for additional hands, eyes, and boots on the ground. With the help of dedicated hobbyists, enthusiastic school kids and teachers, and curious on-lookers, they could multiply data collection and analysis by orders of magnitude, essentially creating thousands of lab and field assistants.

Educators and scientific organizations soon saw the potential for learning-through-doing, drawing the practice of science back into public life – from which it has grown increasingly estranged.

“Some people will say that citizen science will save the world, and some say that it’s trash science,” said Miller-Rushing. There tendency toward hyperbole, but “this meeting should give people a chance to talk about it realistically, and hash out some things.”

Disciplines have tended to develop favored styles. Ecology and other environmental sciences tend toward monitoring – of water quality, weather, animal presence and number [like eBird], plant and animal “phenology” or the timing of developmental changes with physical cycles [Nature’s Notebook] – while the more molecular-scale sciences have developed interactive games [Foldit; Phylo].  Astronomy has tended to be image-oriented, with programs like Galaxy Zoo. Public health has a history of involving patient (although public health scientists don’t like the term “patient!”) communities in a cyclical re-development of epidemiological programs.

Citizen science as a field stands to gain from borrowing techniques across specialties, and banding together to work on shared challenges – like sustainability of funding and staff, databasing solutions for large, sometimes heterogeneous, datasets, and data quality control. All projects need to communicate with volunteers and help volunteers talk to each other. They need an attractive user interface, and a way to bring in new blood.  The conference offers a chance to cross-pollinate, and share ideas, experience, lessons-learned.

It will also be a good chance to talk about the future of the field, and consider support infrastructure.

“We want to talk about how to formalize as a field so that people can share it, can enter it,” said co-organizer Meg Domroese. “There’s a need to get beyond unique terminology and jargon. People are scattered across many fields and journals. How can we compare and share processes for collecting and analyzing data?”

Domroese is looking for a permanent shared space, a forum, possibly virtual, where communication can be ongoing. She thinks there is potential for forming a new professional association for training and networking, an online journal, or a central website, independent of the current stakeholders (something like Citizen Science Central, but with expanded capability). There are a lot of options on the table.


More on this topic: I talked with Sandra Henderson, an adviser for the conference and guest editor for Frontiers’ special issue on citizen science, about her program BudBurst in March. BudBurst is part of the National Phenology Network, administered by NEON.

Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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  1. We very much appreciate the support of ESA in hosting this multi-disciplinary event!

  2. I love this post and only had one issue – the term trash science. First of all, I am so glad to see this being put into a discussion forum at such a reputable meeting organization as ESA – perhaps you should know that citizen science projects are of tremendous importance and should never be considered “trash science” as this only widens the gap between scientists (and I use the term to refer to those who are formally trained such as ecologists, biologists, etc) and those who are out there in the field monitoring and completing citizen science projects but are without scientific credentials. Recently I took part in the Scifund Challenge which is specifically designed to help abolish that gap, allowing those of us scientists who desperately need funding to connect with those outside traditional funding channels (I believe you referenced this in your post – crowdfunding or crowdsourcing). This connection of scientists and citizen scientists succeeds in doing many things that I think should be highlighted here: These programs help to do away with science snobbery, (we are no better than anyone else!) it also helps to make science cool for the masses and encourages enrollment in science programs as well as creating more opportunities for those interested in citizen science projects and finally they give those of us who are poor graduate and post graduate researchers more access to funds for our way cool projects! So to sum up – I am so glad this is going to be a discussion, I just hope that those who take part in the discussion will include the two previous rounds of the Scifund Challenge (both were highly successful, raising somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars for the researchers involved with real, awesome research projects world-wide. http://www.scifundchallenge.org) as well as other forms of crowdfunding and the importance of citizen science to getting kids into science education programs.

  3. Hi Kristina– I want to clarify, because I see now that the way I presented Abe’s quote could be misleading: no one attending this conference believes that citizen science is “trash science” (I’m think I can say that with confidence). There are folks in the wider science world who have extreme views, either dismissing citizen science, or, perhaps, inflating it’s promise, and extremes sometime dominate conversations and media coverage (althoug most of the coverage I have seen has been overwhelmingly positive). Abe joked about the extreme ends of the spectrum, but he was really talking about a lot of citizen science enthusiasts hashing out more moderate opinions on approaches to the field. There are some people who look at the rigor and data collection of citizen science projects with a critical eye, but I think this is a sign of respect. They are holding citizen science to the same high standard as any other research project.

    Thanks for stopping to comment at EcoTone! I hope you come again.


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