The European Citizen Science Forum

The European Citizen Science Forum

By In Hot News, News On May 29, 2017

The European Citizen Science Forum, ESCF, organised by the DITOs partners Université Paris Descartes (UPD) and Tekiu Ltd, took place the last 25th of March at the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI), based in Paris. The event, that got the support of the French Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research and the City of Paris, consisted of a European Stakeholder Roundtable Session on Citizen Science & Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIY Bio) and participatory music concerts to introduce and conclude the day. Aiming at tightening the links existing between policy makers, research institutions and citizen science initiatives, it encouraged discussions between representatives of the many different stakeholders that are vital to the practice of citizen science and its future.

The main topics presiding the roundtables sessions were five: Ethics & Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), Infrastructure & Support, Regulation & Data, Motivations for Engaging and Learning Through Research. Two discussion rounds were followed by a restitution session for each group to point out the main issues that had arisen during the debates. Below are listed some of the most relevant outcomes for each topic.

Ethics & RRI

The debate around ethics & RRI questioned the kind of norms that should govern Citizen Science (CS) and Do It Yourself Biology (DIY Bio). The group discussed about the usage of RRI for CS and grassroots movement, and mentioned the importance of establishing collaborations between grassroot movements and institutions.

CS exists already as a tool for ethics to somehow question the ethics code within institutional scientific research, raising issues about it. Still, it is important to consider that CS must also care about its own ethics and RRI values, which should ensure both citizen and science security. Those will vary depending on the CS project, as there are different types of literacy associated with each CS project and thus different levels of involvement and manipulation required. To ensure this security, moreover, it is necessary to assure that CS education is done, as much as possible, through official channels; all the data related to the project should be well described and documented and, if possible, it is encouraged involving traditional academic scientists in CS who can be helpful to determine the ethics of the project.

Finally, it was also highlighted during the sessions the importance of CS communication in order for CS projects to succeed. Making it easy for citizen scientists to communicate outside the CS community helps the general public to be aware of the existence of this kind of projects; in the same line, besides CS project communication, it was mentioned the importance of having a participatory CS budgeting strategy, in order to empower people to decide for the science they want for them.

Infrastructure & Support

Aiming at defining goals and challenges of the infrastructures and others CS supporters, the three main topics discussed were: funding, intermediaries and recognition within CS projects. The first topic, funding, it refers to how could engage institutions and develop new funding models that support CS friendly types of research. Among the debated possibilities it was highlighted the importance of collecting successful CS stories, increasing the amount of small funding opportunities and open calls and training people on fundraising so that they gain independency in this aspect.

Regarding intermediaries, the discussion revolved about how could academic and non-academic institutions work as intermediates for providing infrastructures that support CS projects. And by infrastructure we do not only refer to physical spaces for sharing knowledges and starting projects but also to recognition, funding and knowledge sharing tools, which means platforms and other projects which could aggregate multiple stakeholders, knowledge and information.

The third and last point, recognition, referred to how could we transform policies so that institutions provide official recognition to these ‘non-traditional’ ways to do science? Would it be possible to get better skills, participation or results recognition? This is, to get certificates for participation, to create evaluation committees who could value somehow the work done or to define formal communication tools that could serve to spread these results.

Regulation & Data

Open data is necessary to standardise and replicate science. Still, it keeps being a tricky point, as there exists the risk that this data is used in antagonistic way, so we should make sure data is protected and hold. All this data treatment process is really important in CS, a discipline that should empower people not only to learn from scientific data but also from the process of collecting, treating and analyzing it.

But then it comes the question of, how do we ensure the good quality of this data? How do we make sure we are treating proper data? And this is what takes us back to the importance of having a standard, a reference protocol that anyone should follow when having to work with data. Plus, this should be complemented by the existence of an organism able to verify this data.

In the era of new technologies, these should serve as a way to trace data quality and ensure that it is fair and transparent. And if we mix the concept of CS with these new technologies, the fact is that they should serve to enable a personal control of data by each citizen.

Different questions arose along the debate. For example, what is the importance of education in this context? Can it help educate citizens on how to treat data (usage, risks and advantages)? This would be maybe the best way to raise public awareness, and could be done, for example, through European events, in scientific communities, or even as part of national civic services program and academic curriculums.

After, the coming question would be: how do we show that this ‘training’ works? Is it about sharing successful stories, as it was discussed in the infrastructure & support roundtable? And also, how do we get more scientific actors on board that could help throughout this process, whose help would be really useful as they are forced to deal with data in their daily lives?

The group used also a ‘carrot-stick’ approach to define their point of view on how CS should move forward. The carrot, or what we should seek for, would stand in this case for the inclusion of CS at education institution, the creation of standards and strong protocols shareable through networks, the enhancement of direct contact between scientists and participants, the engagement on CS project by an improve on its recognition at multiple levels and the encouragement of public data collection for official agencies keeping in mind a good definition of the ‘OIDs’ for these datasets and assuring the quality of this data.

On the other hand, the stick, or things that make us remain vigilants, includes the fact that no CS project can be funded by Europe if data integrity, openness and fairness is not enforced throughout the project. Also, it is of the same importance to assure that data collection follows a rigorous protocol that goes according to the legal status of CS; this legal status should assure that people participating to open science projects are not held accountable for consequences of wrong data collection and misinterpretation of data.

Motivations for Engaging

One of the most asked questions refers to the issue of how to close the gap between scientists and citizens. This starts by finding creative and playful ways to humanize science and make it tangible, ways able to demystify the discipline and make it accessible to everybody. There exists also the new to produce a new generation of professionals able to mediate this communication, making the exchange as transparent as possible and favorising the co-creation process between scientists and citizens. It is true that actual research consists of complex methodologies not adapted to citizens, but this doesn’t mean that it is not possible to create a win/win platform in where citizens could contribute somehow to this research.

However, it is challenging to engage citizens given this complexity, because the way science is open to citizens sometimes aims at fitting all the citizens in one size instead of considering the different motivations driving each one of us.

Learning Through Research

To what extent should citizens be trained over research skills? Is is better to stay in the vision of as less as possible, in order to them thinking out of the box, or should we start training them to get rigorous scientifics thinking skills? It is all about finding a balance that empowers people to do science by giving them techniques and logical thinking strategies that could help for different tasks, but without frightening them.

Research-Based Learning (RBL) aims at empowering people to make science by following the scientific methods step. It requires from close collaboration between citizens and scientists, being the last ones in charge of helping citizens to design protocols and conduct their research. Citizens are always encouraged to publish their results in CS journals and to work and to keep hands-on working on their projects. With the progress of online learning opportunities, there exist some online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that aim at helping to a better understand of what it is RBL.

In brief, ESCF made it evident that Citizen Science has still a long way to go, but it also raised the hope that maybe, by organising these kind of events, we are at least sparkling a motivation or an interest for anybody involved somehow in CS to keep on working on it.