**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
Almost every article about non-practicing scientists participating in scientific research written recently begins with a review of what such a practice could be called: citizen science, public participation in scientific research, community-based monitoring, and volunteer monitoring, to name the most common. Some of the best-known citizen science programs existed for over a century before we bothered to come up with a term for what they were doing – most notably, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, started in 1900, and the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program, made official in 1890. Image: Word cloud from the summary document of the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference in 2012.
The reason such a plethora of terms has proliferated is that each comes with the baggage – like how ‘citizen science’ might sound to an undocumented worker – of preconceived notions and affiliation with a particular structure of program. No one term has yet emerged to describe the wide spectrum of participatory science. Here at OST, we’ve decided to use the term ‘citizen science’ for a variety of reasons, most notably that it’s one of the easiest to understand and becoming one of the most popular. But we still have feelings about the term, so we’ve done a straw poll of staff members to see how they feel.
Please add your own thoughts to the comments here!
Google NGram showing usage of terms describing citizen science in books 1950-2008. Note that ‘citizen science’ is neither the first nor the most popular, but it seems to have cache these days.
Scientists of a century or two ago tended to be affluent men who could take the opportunity to make natural history observations, explore the human body, or attempt early chemical experiments. Before governments decided that science is a public good that deserves public support, research happened alongside other careers and was therefore embodied in the body of expertise associated with that career. ‘Citizen science’ as a term recognizes the fact that nowadays, there are many people who make a career out of scientific exploration – and is meant to be primarily a reflection of scientific inquiry outside of this new institution. But the bodies of expertise needed to perform this inquiry still includes people from all sorts of careers, so I share some of the uneasiness that further categorizing science risks devaluing these types of expertises. Yet, it is always easier to critique something than to create – and we need a shared term to communicate about these types of programs.
I earned a Ph.D. in a field (Science and Technology Studies) which openly questions the assumed cultural authority and value of Ph.D.s. So I believe strongly that questioning categories is important. Categories always have politics, and these can be harmful, especially when people or things are lumped in without consent, or even awareness. I think this explains both the discomfort and the proliferation of terms that Amy described above. I believe that our main concerns about science should be for things like credibility, transparency, salience, and legitimacy, regardless of the people involved, and what category they fit into.
But categories can also be empowering. Every day I feel the momentum behind citizen science, and I’ve noticed increasing calls for its recognition alongside other forms of more “traditional” science. From this perspective I see this movement as a powerful force for overcoming barriers thrown up unnecessarily by the institutions of science–democratizing science, as some would say. From that perspective, I embrace the term “citizen science” happily, even as I hope that someday it will not be necessary.
Placing a name on the extensive efforts made by a group of volunteers with diverse backgrounds, professions and interests will always be controversial, especially one that the National Science Foundation has embraced and commonly associated with middle-schoolers on a field trip. Categorization inherently leads to political tension. But just like any other word, the term “Citizen Science” can be used in different ways to convey different meanings. We use the term not to disenfranchise a large group of people who have dedicated their lives to science nonprofessionally yet don’t identify with the term but because we feel that it connects us with the larger, easily identifiable movement of the democratization of science. We want to take advantage of the mutual benefits, enjoyment and economies of time and resources that comes with collaborating with the public (whether the individuals be experts or amateurs) to further our science-driven, earth-improving goals. I feel that in clearly defining the term “Citizen Science” and delineating its significance, and working closely with our collaborators to make the context of our usage clear, we can take advantage of the movement’s momentum while avoiding the bitter aftertaste that often follows the general categorization of a diverse group of people.
I am amazed by the vast amount of good that can be done when groups of people put their minds to a task, and by the many forms that this can take: from specialized researchers conducting studies, to people training with scientists and going out to collect data, to self-taught naturalists documenting and analyzing the world around them. New technologies are letting people get involved in even more ways, such as phone apps that allow you to log the presence of species of concern, or even crowdsourcing computer gamers to solve online protein folding puzzles for medical research. Putting one name on the diverse forms of involvement can be a challenge, and every act of naming or grouping can have implications. I believe that it’s important to be sensitive and listen to the issues that led to the proliferation of names, and recognize that movements like these are dynamic and will continue to undergo change and development… so names need not be set in stone. But I feel that the term “citizen science” captures the sentiment of these varied movements, and serves as a useful (if imperfect) term for rallying interest and involvement in the amazing human enterprise of monitoring and conserving our marine systems.