(Originally published in February 2021 in JYU's FORTHEM blog.)

In October 2020, the Berlin Museum of Natural History (Museum für Naturkunde) and its partners held an international conference dedicated to Citizen Science (CS) and its (possible and already realised) input for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The conference was part of the official programme of Germany’s 2020 EU Council presidency and included many talks by distinguished CS practitioners and other stakeholders from around the world.

Five University of Jyväskylä associates of the FORTHEM Alliance participated in the online version of the conference, and in this post, they will share some of the take-home-messages from the conference.

Extreme CS vs. Classic CS

Citizen science has traditionally been applied mostly in the natural sciences, in which “the classic citizen science” has been the usual way to go. The classic citizen science, a phrase used in the conference by prof. Muki Haklay (University College London, the UK), is typically characterised by limited participation (mainly data collection) and limited pool of participants (mostly middle-aged people with university degree).

However, lately citizen science has started to make its way to the humanities and social sciences as well, and this has raised a discussion on how to define citizen science in social sciences. In the conference, for example Muki Haklay and the poster of D-NOSES project (Lucia Errandonea, Simone Ruefenacht, Nora Salas and Maria Alonso, Ideas for Change, Spain) introduced the concept of extreme citizen science that has been considered a more participatory and inclusive approach for social scientists practising citizen science. “Extreme” in this context means that people at any literacy level, any gender and any sociocultural and socio-economic status are welcome to carry out all stages of research. In practice, it means that multi-stakeholder collaboration begins with problem definition, continues with project design, data collection, classification and analysis and goes till formulating scientific conclusions or planning policy intervention for change. However, according to Susanne Hecker (Berlin Museum of Natural History) the extreme citizen science is still rare.

Social Citizen Science Research is often built on citizen scientists’ reflections on their everyday lives, people can thus meaningfully contribute to analysis and project assessment even with minimal training provided in the project. This was the case also in the FORTHEM Multilingualism and Higher Education Lab’s CS pilot since it has aimed at involving the non-academic members in all phases of the project. As the FORTHEM Labs aim at involving all major stakeholder groups in their activities, it is worth exploring whether extreme citizen science can provide insights on how to do it.

Who is citizen science serving?

Throughout the conference sessions, the idea of democratization of research was seen as underpinning CS, with awareness that achieving it is not a straightforward matter. For instance, Muki Haklay invited attendees to ponder what their expectations of participants’ “active engagement” are, and what is the meaning of “volunteering”, especially in contexts involving power hierarchies. The German project Socis is dedicated to developing CS projects in humanities and social sciences. According to their insights from participatory social citizen science projects, it is perhaps better to focus on co-operation instead of participation or inclusion. This idea helps to focus more on co-operating with citizen scientists on a more equal footing rather than trying to include them or enhance their participation which has a bit of a hierarchical undertone.

There were also presentations reminding about the potential Matthew effect; that is, that people’s societal and material advantages and disadvantages, including their varying levels of access to education, accumulate. This effect is relevant in CS as well and hence we need to ask which groups are active in Citizen Science, why, which are not, and what are the possible implications for the potential of CS. A similar point was brought up by Philipp Schrögel (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology), who argued that we should think more about accessibility than openness of science. Even if we invite different groups to participate and to share and gather knowledge, those people will still need certain resources (such as enough spare time) to actually take part in a citizen science project. This will already rule out certain groups from participating and make participation more likely for others.

On power relations between different CS researchers

Based on conference talks and discussions and the initial experiences in our FORTHEM school project, it is apparent that power asymmetries and established roles in institutions set a challenge for CS research. In one of the plenaries, Josep Perelló (the University of Barcelona, Spain) raised two interesting questions. The first one was “Collaboration is the answer, but what is the question?” This places the problems and questions of the community in the focus of citizen science research. Furthermore, the impetus for the inquiry is in the real-life problems of the members of the community. In extreme CS, researchers do not enter the community with ready-made research tasks, questions and frameworks, but with an open mind and collaborative attitude as listeners, co-designers and co-researchers. They are learners when it comes to the community issues, and their role is to support, activate, empower and help to find solutions together with the other researchers, i.e., the community members, with their knowledge and expertise of research methodologies and processes. This open design involves negotiation, sharing and cooperation throughout the research process, from planning to reporting.

However, in practice all of the above can be challenging to execute. For instance, in the FORTHEM Multilingualism in school CS pilot, it has been challenging to adapt citizen science principles to comprehensive education because doing research or analysing data was alien to the pupils. Thus, the researchers built an extensive collaboration with teachers of the collaborating school to support the project. Although asking citizens to design and carry out research from the beginning to the end is a fully democratic and wonderful idea, it cannot help the community if citizens do not receive

support from trained experts. In other words, it is necessary to find the balance between letting community members to decide on basically everything and not leaving them alone with challenges.

The academic culture as a challenge

Anna Panagopoulou (Director of Research and Innovation at the European Commission) emphasized in her plenary talk that the upcoming Horizon Europe funding calls will emphasize the importance of applying citizen science as a framework and operational model. However, the current incentives for academics including tenure track pathways and university rankings do not support wide collaboration with university-external stakeholders.

Despite of all these challenges, we strongly believe that Citizen Science is something that needs to be developed. We want to learn more and share experiences with our pilot partners, the Universities of Opole and Valencia. In Spring 2021 we will organize a Citizen Science Conference for all the Labs in FORTHEM Alliance to see what potential Citizen Science brings to various disciplines at the partner universities and in the Alliance level operation of FORTHEM Labs. In this development work, we can hugely benefit from the richness of resources shared in the “Knowledge for Change: A decade of Citizen Science (2020–2030) in support of the Sustainable Development Goals” conference.


Suggested resources

· EU-CITIZEN.SCIENCE: a platform for sharing Citizen Science projects, resources, tools, and training

· CitieS Health project’s toolkit for project design an implementation (under construction)

· European Citizen Science Association website

· CS Track database investigating Citizen Science activities, disseminating good practices and formulating knowledge-based policy recommendations

· SoCiS: Social Citizen Science for Addressing Grand Challenges (policy paper outlining a framework)

· Social Impact Open Repository presenting projects that have contributed to SDGs

· Twenty theses on Social Citizen Science


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