From citizen scientists to actuators of change: The transformative potential of citizen science

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‘Citizen science ranges from stargazing to litter counts, species monitoring to storytelling’ (Dudley, 2016)

With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly evident across the planet, there has been a significant rise in the interest and awareness of environmental degradation and injustice amongst members of the public. Particularly throughout Western Europe, the impact of the acclaimed TV series Blue Planet II — the David Attenborough narrated nature documentary — has made many citizens realise that they must respond, on both an individual and collective basis, to ensure the conservation of their local environments. Already this surge has influenced global brands to change their policy in regards to their use of plastics, while, on a local level, it is culminating in increased engagement with participative environmental research projects. More commonly, such collaborative programs are defined as citizen science. Building on the call for citizens to play a more significant role in shaping regimes of environmental governance, this blog will debate the full scope of citizen science, discussing how it’s potential can be — and, in some cases, already is being — realised.

While the active contribution of individuals in citizen science projects is playing its part in practically tackling environmental issues — cutting down on carbon-pollution and removing marine litter — as well as producing rafts of valuable ecological information — collection of uncharted data on species and habitats — it is debatable as to whether or not such movements, in and of themselves, will prove sufficient for radical change in the process of suppressing global environmental issues. For genuinely sustainable changes to occur at a societal-wide level, it appears crucial that these participative research projects must be clear in regards to where the knowledge they produce goes — ensuring it is as policy-relevant as possible — and, at the same time, work to instil transformative learning outcomes within the participants themselves. Chiefly, this must involve the process of enhancing the critical consciousness and green citizenship of participants.

“Research is not an act of consuming ideas, but one of creating and recreating them”
— Paulo Freire, 1968

Generally, a critical mindset leads citizens to question their political surroundings and realise how they must personally intervene with reality in order to transform it. The development of a critical conscious, as Paolo Freire discusses, involves the process of learning to understand how the seemingly natural restrictions of society are, in reality, constructed by wider processes. Freire developed this theory further by debating how a critically conscious individual moves from being active in the sense of paying taxes and voting for representatives, to becoming a critical political agent. It is here where an individual can genuinely attempt to change their surrounding society. Ultimately, there must be a platform within citizen science which helps to facilitate this development, transforming participants into genuine actuators of change. Here, volunteers don’t simply consume ideas, but produce them and learn how they must act upon them. In turn, this allows for the continued growth and impact of participative action, ensuring projects have a lasting impact, even if funding and resources cease. Effectively, volunteers become empowered as a result of participation and carry on the baton of the relevant project, as well expanding their general understanding of why it is necessary to do so.

While projects centre on practically tackling environmental issues, their remit goes well beyond nature and resource concerns. Projects also address the non-ecological dimensions of unsustainability — inequality, injustice and lack of democratic accountability. It is in this regard that citizen science can be seen as a means of converting the environmental interest of participants into a more dynamic movement towards green citizenship. ‘Environmentalism’, it is important to remember, is a concept narrowly concerned with ecological preservation and often ignores the wider forces of politics, economics and power which interact with the subject of sustainable development. Green citizenship, on the other hand, understands sustainability as an issue which deals with securing human rights, lowering socio-economic disparities and ensuring the demands of the human economy do not outstrip the regenerative capacities of the eco-systems upon which they depend. While not all citizen science projects will instigate such a transformation of citizenship among participants, there is undoubted scope within them to do so on one scale or another.

Taking a step back, it comes as no surprise that the scale of environmental problems has become overwhelming for the realm of professional scientific research. Although environmental processes operate at broad geographic scales, scientific exploration has traditionally operated at a much smaller, often individual level. Indeed, scientific discourse has frequently appeared elite-centred and highly personalized in terms of theoretical contributions. Following such a narrow approach, of course, limits our ability to monitor, understand and solve ever-growing problems, such as the impacts of climate change. Fortunately, the aforementioned rise of public interest in environmental action has been complimented by recent advancements in technology. Practically speaking, this has facilitated the creation of a more accessible channel to advance local knowledge to the decision-making level. More generally, of course, it has also made citizens realise that they too can legitimately engage with the realm of scientific research.

Often discussed as a new research paradigm — despite the fact participation in scientific research has existed in some form or another for centuries — citizen science promises to lessen the restrictions of professional research and, simultaneously, improve society’s engagement with it. Predominantly run and coordinated through Non-Governmental Organisations and environmental charities, although truly bottom-up approaches involving community groups are common, citizen science is advanced as a means of revealing causal understandings and producing a citizenry willing to turn understandings into action.

Frustratingly, academic conceptualisations of citizen science have regularly disregarded key social aspects of the approach, focusing instead on its practical and organisational elements. Ultimately, this paints a rather narrow comprehension of the initiative, ignoring the important role which volunteers’ motivations and outcomes play in shaping the impact of participative research. Of the research which has been done regarding the transformative potential of citizen science, much has been centred around environmental learning and awareness building, which, as discussed, ignores the realm of politics. Effectively, a key aim of my PhD studies is to address these gaps. By exploring the full remit of citizen science projects, I aim to succinctly document the transformative potential of the approach, plugging gaps of research which fail to document how projects can make a real difference to the enterprise of volunteers in tackling unsustainability.

Using Northern Ireland as a case study, I plan to examine these topics further. Here, I will critically explore the core factors which influence the manner in which a project is operationalised — purpose, utility, scale, methodology, data quality, political influence — analyse the social components which underpin it, question to what degree volunteer participation leads to transformative learning outcomes and document what kind of impacts these are initiating. After spending several weeks meeting with the coordinators and participants of initiatives in Northern Ireland, I have begun to better under how these issues function in practice. While some schemes act as entry-level initiatives — where tasks involve less technical assignments and objectives focus more on community-engagement — others follow more methodological procedures — where volunteers require in depth training and prior experience to carry out technical tasks.

However, while each project carries varying drivers and methodological structures, as well as vastly diverse participant groups, they all appear to share a number of core components. Principally, that they operate as means of empowering both the knowledge of citizens, as well as the citizens themselves. This aspect may appear more evident in projects which have led to legislative changes — such as the SeaSearch diving projects which played their part in the designation of one of Northern Ireland’s first Marine Conservation Zone’s — but is inherent in all professionally-managed citizen science initiatives. In Northern Ireland alone, this can be seen within Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful’s marine litter surveys, local community beach care groups, species monitoring initiatives and the Belfast Hills Partnership’s terrestrial wildlife projects, all of which approach the topic of empowerment in different ways.

Without being advanced as a means of changing power balances and contesting top-down orders of governance, participative action and knowledge production projects simply reinforce the status quo. It appears clear that citizen science must address oppressive regimes of power by instigating long-term mobilization and action in a way which reinforces alternative forms of knowledge. Key to this, of course, is initiating the aforementioned transformative learning outcomes within the participants. By involving people in gathering of information, knowledge production itself becomes a form of mobilization; new solutions or actions are identified, tested, and then tried again, moving from practical problem solving to more fundamental social transformation. Crucially, this is where citizen scientists must find space for self-critical investigation as well.

Following this logic, citizen science does not seek to manipulate its participants or to generate large, yet generally ineffective, datasets. Instead, it facilitates a platform to elevate their role within society and implies the necessity for further investigation of reality, in order to change it, not simply to reflect the actuality of the moment. Ultimately, the goal of research in this perspective is not simply to communicate new voices or categories, but the radical transformation of social reality and improvement in the lives of the people involved.

The main challenge to further these aspiration surrounds the need to alter how decision-makers view and understand citizen science. It is essential to comprehend what it can and cannot achieve. It cannot, and never will, replace professional research, and questions over the validity of citizen data will perpetually arise. It can, however, work in tandem with professional realms and assist in the process of researching broad ranges of the environment. It is also worth noting that critical learning is important not only for the citizen scientists, but also for the decision-makers, who may themselves be trapped in received versions of their own situation. The degree to which citizen science can influence the critical learning of decision-makers is uncertain, but there is undoubted scope that it could play a role in extensive education.

It is time, then, to eradicate the notion of citizen scientists being nothing more than ‘docile’ data collectors, creating ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’ or enhancing their ‘environmentalism’. Instead of comprehending citizen science as a means of getting members of the public to carry out mundane tasks, it is crucial to realise that participants, enabled by technology and empowered by social change, are beginning to transform the way in which science gets done.

Under the right circumstances, citizen science empowers local knowledge by facilitating a channel to advance it to a decision-making level, where it gains considerable power and can make a genuine legislative impact. Most importantly, it can also create something which governments fear, a critical citizenry. By exploring the under explored potential of transformative citizen science, this research will attempt to radically change both the academic and practical understanding of participative research. If more focus and recognition can be put upon this, the impact of the movement could significantly increase.

Written by

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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