Citizen science is a research method that is growing rapidly. It consists of letting citizens participate in research projects. In its report “Collaborative participation as a mode of knowledge production”, the French association Fondation Sciences Citoyennes (“Citizen Science Foundation”) presented public participation in scientific research as a way to help science face societal challenges.
This article was translated from French by Timothée Froelich. The original is available at “La science participative au service de la société”.
Last April, the French Citizen Sciences Foundation published a report on research practices in citizen science. This report examined two approaches to citizen science. The first is based on partnerships between research and citizen groups. This is the case for Science Shops, for example. The second approach is more recent and lets the average citizen participate in order to collect a large amount of data for research. In both cases, the survey of the Citizen Sciences Foundation states that citizen research brings science and society closer together.
Sources: Citizen Sciences Foundation
Getting involved in society
A project resulting from collaboration between actors of civil society and researchers often addresses a societal issue. For instance, that is what the French project Observatoire des saisons is all about. Here, the researchers have built partnerships with associations like Tela Botanica. The members of the association have gathered lots of data and created a network of phenological observation. In these cases, members of civil society, whether they are associations, user groups or practitioners, participate in research projects that focus directly on their own concerns. The Citizen Science Foundation also states that “this knowledge production process […] led to a greater involvement of citizens concerning research directions, especially in its ethical and environmental implications.”
The Citizen Science Foundation also indicates that citizen groups will bring a different point of view from the researcher’s. Florian Charvolin, researcher in sociology at the Université Jean Monnet and author of the book Des Sciences citoyennes ? La question de l’amateur dans les sciences naturalistes, explains as well that “citizen science invites us to look beyond our ways of thinking about traditional science. It promotes an opening up of the researchers’ and practitioners’ world. Providing answers to social concerns will make it possible to situate the knowledge, and link it directly to a context or to certain practices.
Benefit a two-way street
Outside of groups of people, every citizen can participate in citizen research programs, too, by collecting data on a large scale. A few years ago, this sort of participation was reserved for those most passionate about a subject, but it has now been democratized. Participants train themselves with the files and protocols they are given beforehand, as for the Observatoire des papillons des jardins (Observatory of Garden Butterflies), where a document listing the most common butterfly species allows participants to identify them correctly.
The project Observatory of Garden Butterflies gives every citizen the opportunity to help researchers follow the evolution of biodiversity by counting the butterflies in their garden. – MyScienceWork
While gathering this data, citizens become the guardians of biodiversity. Florian Charvolin explains that “citizen science will make participants more vigilant. During the development of a land use plan, like the building of a dam, people will gain an objective judgment about the project’s scope. In this regard, citizen science facilitates democracy through the individual and personal training of the participants.”
The Citizen Science Foundation ends its report with a number of recommendations to develop this kind of research. For instance, it advocates rewarding researchers’ involvement in society and rethinking the evaluation of citizen research projects.
Citizen science puts the citizen at the heart of research and, in so doing, brings traditional thinking into question. It has multiple applications, and also addresses other approaches like the rapidly developing action research and citizen cyberscience. Citizen science may not be widely known to the public, but it is still at the dawn of its history.
To find out more:
Des sciences citoyennes ? La question de l'amateur dans les sciences naturaliste, F. Charvolin, A. Micoud, L. Nyhart, Edition de l’aube, la tour d’Aigues, 2007.
Citizen science, http://www.scientificamerican.com/citizen-science/ on Scientific America
Report of the seminar Les sciences citoyennes. Vigilance collective et rapport entre profane et scientiﬁque dans les sciences naturalistes, Saint Etienne, 2005, available on MyScienceWork (in French).