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The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science

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This volume in The Rightful Place of Science series explores citizen science, the movement to reshape the relationship between science and the public. By not only participating in scientific projects but actively helping to decide what research questions are asked and how that research is conducted, ordinary citizens are transforming how science benefits society. Through vivid chapters that describe the history and theory of citizen science, detailed examples of brilliant citizen science projects, and a look at the movement's future, The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science is the ideal guide for anyone interested in one of the most important trends in scientific practice.
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The Rightful Place of Science:
Citizen Science
The Rightful Place of Science:
Citizen Science
Edited by
Darlene Cavalier &
Eric B. Kennedy
Contributors
Lily Bui
Darlene Cavalier
David Coil
Caren B. Cooper
Robert R. Dunn
Eric B. Kennedy
Bruce V. Lewenstein
Holly L. Menninger
Gwen Ottinger
Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes
Tempe, AZ and Washington, DC
THE RIGHTFUL PLACE OF SCIENCE:
Citizen Science
Copyright © 2016
Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes
Arizona State University
This compilation is released under a Creative Commons At-
tribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
license (CC-BY-NC-ND). The chapters included in this volume
are individually released under the same license, and included
in the compilation with the permission of the authors. See
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-
nd/4.0/legalcode for more information.
Printed in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Rightful Place of Science series explores the complex inter-
actions among science, technology, politics, and the human
condition.
For information on The Rightful Place of Science series,
write to: Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes
PO Box 875603, Tempe, AZ 85287-5603
Or visit: http://www.cspo.org
Model citation for this volume:
Cavalier, D., and Kennedy, E. B., eds. 2016. The Rightful Place of
Science: Citizen Science. Tempe, AZ: Consortium for Science,
Policy & Outcomes.
ISBN: 0692694838
ISBN-13: 978-0692694831
LCCN: 2016908692
FIRST EDITION, JUNE 2016
CONTENTS
Foreword
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
i
Preface
Darlene Cavalier
v
INTRODUCTION
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
Darlene Cavalier
1
PART ONE
1 When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
Eric B. Kennedy
21
2 Two Meanings of Citizen Science
Caren B. Cooper & Bruce V. Lewenstein
51
3 Teaching Students How to Discover the Unknown
Robert R. Dunn & Holly L. Menninger
63
PART TWO
4 When Citizen Science Makes the News
Lily Bui
75
5 Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
Gwen Ottinger
89
6 Citizen Microbiology: A Case Study in Space
David Coil
105
CONCLUSION
The Age of Citizen Science
Eric B. Kennedy & Darlene Cavalier
117
About the Authors 127
Acknowledgements 131
i
FOREWORD
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
It’s time to talk about citizen science. The movement
to recharge the relationship between science and the
public—to bring interested amateurs back into the world
of scientific research, to collect and analyze data, to
share computing resources, and to enable ordinary citi-
zens to use the tools of science to shape policy, increase
government accountability, and uncover corporate mal-
feasance—has been one of the most important and yet
less noticed trends in the history of recent science. The
publication of this volume is especially welcome as a
guide to this movement.
For most of the history of science, the concept of “cit-
izen science” would have been unnecessary. Almost all
science was done by amateurs: people moved by pas-
sion, a love of learning, and the desire to improve the
world. The distinction between amateurs and profes-
sionals evolved slowly, over the course of the nineteenth
century, as graduate training programs turned out
Ph.D.s in science and an expanding network of universi-
ties and government laboratories provided them with
careers. Ironically, as science became more central to life
in the modern world, it became more inaccessible: espe-
Pang
ii
cially after World War II and the rise of Big Science, it
became impossible for amateurs to make meaningful
contributions to science, and harder to conduct well-
informed public discussion of science and its social ef-
fects.
The citizen science movement doesn’t seek to turn
back the clock—no one who cares about science wants to
undo centuries of progress!—but to use new technolo-
gies and media to give amateurs a place in the world of
scientific research, and to bring scientific research more
fully into the world. Just as blogs have enabled self-
publishing, digital production tools support basement
musicians, and computer-aided design and social media
support the DIY and maker movements, ever-cheaper
sensors, cloud computing, and a host of other tools make
it possible for amateurs to collect high-quality data, to
contribute to ongoing scientific projects, and to connect
with professional scientists, politicians, and each other.
In the process, they are expanding and redefining the
place of scientific research in education and contempo-
rary life.
In other words, if you were to imagine a movement
that should attract the attention of scholars and re-
searchers, that would showcase their tools, and give
them a chance to observe all the issues that have con-
cerned their fields for decades—about the credibility of
evidence, scientific practice, the conduct of controver-
sies, the role that gender and social forces play in shap-
ing knowledge, and so on—you would create citizen
science. If citizen science can advance the sciences, the
study of citizen science will be a boon for scholars writ
large.
The essays in this volume illustrate how scholars and
practitioners alike can contribute to our understanding
of citizen science, and offer some clues about how en-
gagement with citizen science can improve scholarship
Foreword
iii
as well. By way of conclusion, I’ll point out just
one. Writing about innovation sometimes requires being
innovative about writing. The production of this volume
escapes the problem that most academic work has when
reporting on fast-moving subjects: by the time mono-
graphs about them finally appear, the subject has com-
pletely changed, and the opportunities for scholars to
positively affect public policy and understanding have
passed. Scholarly public engagement won’t work if it
takes place at the scholar’s normal glacial pace, but re-
ducing ourselves to talking heads with tweed coats isn’t
the solution either. Volumes like this one (and the other
publications in The Rightful Place of Science series) repre-
sent an interesting experiment in making scholarly work
accessible and timely.
Alex Pang, March 2016
v
PREFACE
Darlene Cavalier
Pietro Michelucci is a cognitive scientist at the Hu-
man Computation Institute who wants to find a cure for
Alzheimer’s disease. The most common form of demen-
tia, Alzheimer’s is marked by a number of physiological
changes in the brain, including a reduction in the
amount of blood flowing to the brain. Cornell University
researchers believe that restoring that blood flow could
slow or even cure Alzheimer’s disease, but analyzing
blood flow data is incredibly time-consuming and hard
to automate.
Michelucci has a tool to solve the problem, but it’s
not a lab microscope, a brain scanner, or even a rack of
computers. It’s a crowd; actually two crowds, to be ex-
act. The first is made up of 30,000 “dusters,” people who
participated in the stardust@home project in their spare
time. Using an online virtual microscope, they sorted
through a million images to find seven solitary particles
of space dust captured by a satellite that was flown
through the tail of a comet. The second crowd is the
200,000 people who played an online puzzle game called
EyeWire to help trace the neural wiring of the human
brain. Michelucci realized that the virtual microscope
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vi
from stardust@home could be repurposed to help locate
stalled blood vessels, and that the EyeWire puzzle game
could be used to build a map of brain blood vessels.
Combining the two would allow Alzheimer’s research-
ers to see a 3D map of exactly where blood is and isn’t
flowing in the brain and speed up the research by a fac-
tor of 30. “By unleashing the power of the crowd, we can
remove the analytic bottleneck and dramatically acceler-
ate the Alzheimer’s research,” says Michelucci.
The people who join these crowds are called “citizen
scientists.” They’re members of the general public who
are participating in scientific research not as guinea pigs
or funders, but by conducting experiments, making ob-
servations, collecting data, and engaging their minds to
tasks beyond the reach of today’s best computers. Not so
long ago, “citizen scientist” sounded like a contradiction
in terms. Science is remote, expensive, and requires a lab
coat and a Ph.D.; amateurs might be able to appreciate
science, just as they might appreciate opera or sports,
but they couldn’t contribute to it. Today, though, it’s a
short leap from supporting science to participating: ena-
bled by technology and empowered by social change,
curious laypeople are transforming the way science gets
done. Some are students, others retired; some have am-
bitions to become scientists; others are driven by a love
of nature or the challenge of an interesting problem; oth-
ers want to use science to improve their neighborhoods
or protect their environment. Citizen scientists work
with professional scientists in academia or government,
with grassroots organizations, or form their own social
networks. They believe that research and discovery
should be accessible and useful. (More than half of all
basic research in the United States is federally funded,
after all.) And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to grasp modern
scientific problems like climate change, become involved
in monitoring environmental conditions, or participate
in policy discussions.
Preface
vii
Satisfied Citizens
Necessity and innovation make it easier for people to
get involved in serious science. The internet has dramat-
ically reduced the cost and difficulty of sharing infor-
mation and obtaining or using high-quality scientific
instruments. Smartphones equipped with increasingly
sensitive sensors, microphones, and cameras have be-
come virtual laboratories, democratizing participation in
science while extending the range and quality of data
ordinary citizens can collect. Equipped with a
smartphone and a few apps, citizen scientists can con-
tribute to bird migration studies, track botanical phe-
nophases, document glacier retreats and the impacts of
fires on desert ecosystems, measure environmental noise
and pollution, and even record earthquakes. (GPS and
accurate clocks further assure that these observations
have scientific value.) Social media can be used to coor-
dinate group observations, publicize new findings, or
share enthusiasm and excitement for science. Open ac-
cess publications make it possible for citizen scientists to
publish their findings and make their data discoverable
to others who may want or need it.
Citizen scientists don’t do research for a living; they
practice science for personal satisfaction, to advance
fields of research, or, sometimes, for self-preservation.
Such was the case for the residents of Flint, Michigan,
who knew something was wrong with their tap water.
They shared their concerns with local officials, but little
happened until they joined forces with Marc Edwards, a
professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. Edwards
led the study that proved there most certainly were high
lead levels in their homes and, as his investigation
would uncover, this was an issue the state scientists ig-
nored. “They stepped forward as citizen scientists to
explore what was happening to them and to their com-
munity, we provided some funding and the technical
Cavalier
viii
and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I
think that work speaks for itself,” Edwards told the
Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016.
Citizen scientists can extend the reach of existing in-
struments or observational networks. NASA’s SMAP
(Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite orbits the globe
every three days to measure soil moisture levels, but
NASA also enlists citizen scientists to ground-truth sat-
ellite data by regularly reporting their local soil moisture
levels. Together, the satellite- and citizen-generated data
will be used to improve weather forecasts, detail wa-
ter/energy/carbon cycles, monitor droughts, predict
floods, and assist crop productivity. Similarly, thou-
sands of people tweet their local snow depths and loca-
tions to #SnowTweets so that Richard Kelly, a
cryosphere scientist from the University of Waterloo,
can calibrate the accuracy of instruments on weather
satellites. Why turn to humans? Clouds, for one thing,
can block snow from being visible to satellites. “Citizen
scientists’ measurements, in many regions, match the
snow cover model estimates,” said Kelly. Across the
country, more than a one and a half million amateur
chemists and biologists monitor the quality of America’s
waterways.
Many of those water-monitoring citizen scientists or-
ganize into local chapters operating on $2,000 a year or
less, and feed their findings into databases used by pro-
fessional scientists and policymakers. They show that
citizen scientists can make a material difference to re-
search projects’ bottom lines, and the speed at which
science progresses. Presidential science advisor John
Holdren estimated in September 2015 that time and la-
bor donated by citizen scientists to biodiversity research
had “an economic value of up to $2.5 billion per year.”
Amy Carton, former citizen science lead at Cancer Re-
search UK, reported that her volunteers helped success-
Preface
ix
ful identify cancerous cells from drug trials by looking at
slides in the online project Cell Slider. “It would have
taken our researchers 18 months to do what citizen sci-
entists did in just three months,” she reported.
The Final Citizen Frontier
Thanks to more accessible technology, better data-
gathering ability, easier coordination through the Inter-
net and social media, and the growing track record of
citizen science projects, opportunities to participate are
becoming as diverse as science itself. Through these pro-
jects, citizen scientists are collaborating with profession-
als, starting projects on their own, conducting field
studies, adding valuable local detail to research and
even creating low-cost versions of expensive lab instru-
ments to conduct their research. Their data are improv-
ing local decisions and policy-making. And their
independence sometimes frees them to ask questions
that lead science in new directions.
So what’s next for citizen science? We may soon see
the citizen science equivalent of Big Science or Revolu-
tionary Science—discoveries and collaborations that
bring together millions of people, and change the dy-
namics of innovation and research. Most citizen science
projects today focus on data collection and analysis. This
suits the needs of many researchers, and also builds on a
growing interest among educators in teaching science in
a more hands-on way. But Michelucci, the Alzheimer’s
researcher, envisions a day “when non-scientists con-
tribute to all phases of the scientific process, including
literature review, proposing new hypotheses, designing
and running experiments, and data analysis and inter-
pretation, and discovery.” Of course, there are some
fields that will always require years of study and incred-
ible expertise, but “there is a growing body of evidence
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x
to support the validity of public participation in most
facets of research,” Michelucci says.
This field is already disrupting how science gets
done. It’s not difficult to imagine citizen science projects
becoming part of high school and college curricula; local
citizen science alliances influencing planning, zoning,
and economic development plans; or citizens equipped
with fitness monitors, smartphones, and drones contrib-
uting to global studies in biomedical science, sociology,
ecology, and cosmology.
We have only begun to realize the vast potential of
citizen science. This book aims to provide you with an
introduction to citizen science, as represented by con-
tributors from diverse fields. Whether you are a teacher,
student, researcher, practitioner, policymaker, reporter,
or a general-interest reader, we hope this book provides
some insight, inspires you to read more about this topic,
and perhaps even encourages you to get involved in cit-
izen science projects that need your help.
INTRODUCTION
1
AN UNLIKELY JOURNEY INTO
CITIZEN SCIENCE
Darlene Cavalier
The American shad is Philadelphia’s fish. Like the far
more celebrated salmon, shad live their adult lives in
cold, salty ocean waters and swim back to freshwater
rivers and streams only to spawn. They’re tasty like
salmon, too, if bonier and less fleshy (the fish’s Latin
species name, Alosa sapidissima, means “most delicious
fish”). Unlike salmon, though, shad can undertake their
freshwater return migration several times in their lives—
they are a most determined little fish. Shad were once so
plentiful in the Philadelphia region that the Lenape In-
dians could hunt the fish in the Schuylkill and Delaware
rivers with bows and arrows, and the shad industry
provided the name for Fishtown, one of Philadelphia’s
archetypal neighborhoods. Philadelphians like me take
pride in the shad’s hardiness and history—they fed our
country’s Founding Fathers, after all, and were a dietary
staple of city residents for generations.
By the mid-20th century, however, the people who
lived along Philadelphia’s rivers—many of whom de-
pended on shad for their livelihoods—noticed that the
shad were not migrating upriver as they had before.
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2
They were being hampered by twin human-produced
barriers, one chemical and the other physical. The indus-
trialization that powered the city’s prosperity had creat-
ed a river system that was one of the most polluted in
the country. Reportedly, the stink was so bad that mili-
tary pilots were told to ignore the smell as they flew
thousands of feet overhead. Meanwhile, as pollutants
like phosphorous depleted oxygen levels in the rivers, a
series of dams blocked migration routes; they estab-
lished walls through which the shad couldn’t pass and
couldn’t leap in their desperate attempts to reach their
spawning grounds upstream. Fishermen and other lo-
cals did not know all the details at the time, but they
observed declining fish numbers with great concern,
knowing that the disappearance of the shad would affect
their own economic and cultural survival.
Those citizens used what they did know about their
environment, however, to guide their observations and
inform their collection of data about local shad popula-
tions. With their findings, they were able to form hy-
potheses about the causes of the shad decline and
communicate them to policymakers to encourage action
in cleaning up the rivers. It was a process that sounds an
awful lot like science and science-based policymaking.
I am inordinately fond of the shad, and perhaps I
identify with the fish a little too closely. But how could I
not? They are stubborn, persistent, maniacally focused
creatures, and a legacy of a city I have called home for
decades. It took a long, long time before the efforts of all
those concerned citizens began to reverse the shad’s for-
tunes—and only in very recent years has there been
some real ground for optimism. Yet the shad’s story
provides a shining (albeit at times smelly) example of
what can happen when non-professionals become in-
volved in a scientific problem near and dear to their
hearts. In some ways, their story mirrors that of my own
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
3
journey and that of the field to which I have become
dedicated: citizen science.
This book is intended to demonstrate the value and
vitality of citizen science, and its terrific potential for
involving many more everyday people in a dynamic and
responsive scientific enterprise. This book is also ad-
dressed to people like me: those who, as young students,
were not especially interested in dissecting frogs or
working out physics problems, and had little desire to
become professional researchers or engineers—but who,
as adults, find themselves drawn to science, and more
than a little curious as to how it shapes the world we live
in. In some people, maybe, that interest shows itself as
an itch to read about theories on the origins of the uni-
verse, or the search for unknown worlds or undiscov-
ered species. Maybe it’s a hunger to know more about
what lies behind the ever-rising tide of technological
wonders. Maybe the urge is for all things environmental:
to know more about climate change or biodiversity or
simply what kinds of birds are nesting in the backyard.
Or perhaps it’s a quest for greater clarity about the bil-
lions of federal tax dollars being spent on scientific re-
search. There are a great number of us with such
interests, and citizen science opens up a way for us all to
become more involved in following our passions into
the realms of research and policymaking.
In the diversity of projects described throughout this
volume, the term “citizen science” encompasses a range
of activities and involvement on the part of the public, a
range large enough to include amateurs searching for
hidden galaxies and middle school students document-
ing microbes culled from their belly buttons. Citizen sci-
entists are often driven by an unending passion, whether
to protect a species they care about, to speak up for peo-
ple suffering from diseases or toxic exposures, or to
watch over an ecosystem nearby. As Caren Cooper and
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4
Bruce Lewenstein illustrate in Chapter 2, citizen science
encompasses at least two main pursuits. One involves
citizens voluntarily contributing observations and data
to scientists, who then use this information in research.
The other encompasses democratic participation in sci-
ence and science policy, to ensure that it meets the needs
and concerns of citizens. These are not mutually exclu-
sive pursuits; indeed, one naturally engenders the other.
Because of this, citizen scientists can serve in a wide
range of roles. Sometimes they are an educated volun-
teer researcher, collecting data, recording observations,
and performing basic analyses. These roles can be espe-
cially useful on projects that are difficult to automate,
where the human eye can make rapid work of complex
problems. While these kinds of involvement have histor-
ically often been in one-time or context-specific roles,
citizen scientists today can be involved in dozens of pro-
jects around the world. Sometimes, for instance, citizens
are more active in designing and developing projects
from the outset. For others, citizen science may mean a
lifetime of government lobbying with science-based da-
ta. On other occasions, they’re involved in research that
would have been impossible a decade ago—like launch-
ing cube satellites into orbit.
All these components of citizen science increasingly
overlap—that is, engaged citizens participating in scien-
tific research desire a greater voice in how that research
is conducted and what goals that research seeks to
achieve. My own journey to citizen science certainly
bears this out.
Swimming Upstream
I grew up in a blue-collar family, in a part of Penn-
sylvania where not many folks had the chance to go to
college, or even the expectation that they should. I liked
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
5
school well enough, and I got decent grades, but I was
never particularly interested in my science classes. Our
science teachers and the speakers they occasionally
brought in—ostensibly to motivate us—seemed mostly
to address only the handful of kids who were demon-
strably smart and already science-oriented, leaving the
rest of us to search for other passions to define us. In my
case, those passions were the very non-scientifically
taught disciplines of dancing and cheerleading, and I
spent every waking classroom moment practicing rou-
tines under my desk.
All that practice paid off. After getting into Temple
University’s communications program, I made it onto
the school’s competitive cheerleading squad my fresh-
man year. That provided me not only with excitement—
I traveled the country and cheered at some thrilling
games, including an NCAA playoff game at the Univer-
sity of Nevada Las Vegas—but also with an unlikely
career start. In part because I needed to pay my way
through college, in my senior year I landed a profession-
al cheerleading gig with the Philadelphia 76ers, and for
the next three years I got to share a court (or at least the
sidelines) with Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins.
That was pretty much an evening job, though. Dur-
ing the day I worked for a company called Media Man-
agement, which performed administrative and
marketing work for a variety of clients. One of those cli-
ents happened to be the popular science magazine Dis-
cover, and one of my tasks was to help with the newly
inaugurated Discover Magazine Technology Awards pro-
gram. The task at hand was chiefly organizational: I had
to come up with suitable nominees for the various
award categories, encourage them to apply, and then
shepherd the submission of forms and supporting mate-
rials. But in the process I had to read through a mind-
boggling variety of journals and magazines about every-
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6
thing from software design to medical research to envi-
ronmentalism.
Not only did I learn a lot about recent scientific and
technological developments, but I also interacted with
the people at the heart of some truly amazing scientific
research and cutting-edge technologies. Granted, my
interaction with these titans was from a chair in the
mailroom and often consisted simply of checking with
them about missing information in their applications.
But the innovators I spoke with—probably assuming I
had some sort of influence on the $100,000 awards—
were incredibly open and responsive to my requests for
details about their work. All of which I found fascinat-
ing—as did my fellow cheerleaders, when I would talk
to them in our dressing room about what I’d learned.
That last fact may surprise most people, who do not
readily associate cheerleaders with an interest in science.
It did not in the least surprise me.
Before too long, my obvious interest helped me move
out of the mailroom and into the classroom. I took over
the Educator’s Guide for Discover, reading the magazine
cover to cover each month and translating the infor-
mation into a form suitable for school use. I discovered
(no pun intended) that the magazine, written for a gen-
eral, nonprofessional audience and highlighting the
most exciting developments in science and technology,
was conceptually perfect for kids learning about science.
It was perfect for my education, too: in learning more
about how Discover’s writers and editors rearticulated
complex material for broad understanding, and in how I
could further explain it to teachers of young enthusiasts,
I grew increasingly confident in navigating a once alien
landscape.
Less than three years later, the magazine was bought
by the Disney Company, and when I was hired by Dis-
ney and moved to their headquarters in New York City
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
7
my responsibilities expanded considerably. They now
included running the Discover Magazine Technology
Awards, for which I’d been stuffing envelopes earlier.
Eventually I became Senior Manager of Global Business
Development for Walt Disney Publishing Worldwide,
specializing in development and strategic marketing.
This isn’t meant to be a boast or even a recounting of my
résumé. I mention it because my experiences at Disney
opened my eyes to the fact that one of the important fac-
tors in the company’s success was the partnerships and
synergies they developed with others—a model that
would eventually become enormously useful to me, and
to the field of citizen science.
In my new role heading up the Discover Awards, I
garnered a lot of corporate support for the program, and
it became a significant annual event for both Disney and
the scientific community. The Awards grew to become
Disney’s largest publishing event—the “Academy
Awards of Science.” There were thousands of applica-
tions and nominations, as well as annual two-week-long
exhibitions and shows at Epcot Center. The role of celeb-
rity judges grew impressively and included luminaries
from Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin to magicians Penn
& Teller, and from the famed physicist Freeman Dyson
to the inimitable Ray Charles. Through the Awards and
supporting science-themed roundtable discussions, I
met F. Story Musgrave, the only astronaut to have flown
missions on all five space shuttles and best known as the
“fixer” of the Hubble Space Telescope; intriguingly, he
was also a high school dropout who became a heart sur-
geon before becoming an astronaut. I met Marvin Min-
sky, co-founder of MIT’s Media Lab and often referred
to as the “father of artificial intelligence.” I worked
closely with astronaut Sally Ride, the first American
woman to enter space, and Dean Kamen, the inventor of
the Segway. Personally and professionally, it was a high
point in my life, and interacting with some of the top
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8
scientific minds in America nurtured a deep love for
science, a love that had been kindled just a few short
years earlier.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that as that passion took
greater hold of me, I began to wonder why it was so
long in coming. What was it about my science classes in
grade school that failed to inspire me in the way that
conversations with professional scientists did? Perhaps
it was the outdated “demonstration science” that passes
for science education (which Robert Dunn and Holly
Menninger eloquently critique in Chapter 3). Maybe,
too, more insidious forces were at work: I had just as-
sumed that science was intended for the geeky boys in
my class—unaware of the subtle social pressures that
girls receive, pushing us away from careers in science,
technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Whatever
the reason, I was grateful that I no longer saw science as
something meant only for others. But I was the benefi-
ciary of a series of truly fortuitous events. What about all
the others like me who weren’t so lucky?
It took a number of years with Disney before I had a
conversation with an editor at Discover that changed my
life. Over time my career had become very corporate—a
daily march of business meetings and PowerPoint
presentations—and I was telling the editor, Marc Zablu-
doff, how much I missed the work at Discover, educating
the magazine’s millions of readers about the ways sci-
ence and technology impacted their lives and shaped the
future. The editor interrupted my waxing nostalgic: “Do
you think we really educate people? Or do we merely
entertain them?”
He went on: “What do you think our readers can ac-
tually do with the information we give them? The op-
portunities for non-scientists to participate in anything
having to do with science in a meaningful way are nil.
People who aren’t going to be scientists are excluded
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
9
from the very start—after teaching the basics, science
classes in schools are not geared toward kids who aren’t
planning to go into the sciences professionally. So we
entertain people with the latest research and break-
throughs, but there’s not much the average person can
do with that information, is there?”
“But isn’t a scientifically literate population im-
portant?” I objected. Don’t we stress STEM education in
school and fret that our students are falling behind other
countries in science education? What is the point, if the
scientifically literate can’t engage with the research that
impacts our future? How (as Lily Bui insightfully in-
quires in Chapter 4) can media like Discover add value to
the way citizens discover, assess, and even produce sci-
entific information? Can’t people like me, who aren’t
career scientists but are fascinated by science, participate
meaningfully in the scientific enterprise—a huge and
vital enterprise, I should emphasize, that’s paid for in
significant part by our tax dollars?
Marc was goading me, but he knew what I was really
bemoaning—I had grown more comfortable with scien-
tists, but I still felt I was little more than a tourist in the
world of science. I wanted a place of my own. Claim
one, he told me. “If you can figure out where you fit
here, you’ll figure this out for millions of people.”
I took him up on his challenge. I applied to a gradu-
ate program at the University of Pennsylvania and dove
into science history and sociology. I was especially eager
to learn how science policy worked, since policy is criti-
cal for shaping what and how research is done in this
country and because it seemed to offer an opening for
non-scientists like me to get involved.
Through readings guided by Professor Susan Lindee,
I started to understand how many lay people, like me,
came to “find science.” For many it was through the fa-
Cavalier
10
miliar path of activism—a response to a medical condi-
tion or disease outbreak or a local environmental con-
cern. People who had a vested interest were quick to
absorb technical information and take action. The envi-
ronmentalists, notably, also organized communities to
gather and share data and frequently called into ques-
tion the ability of industry and government to place the
interests of people first.
But at the time, 2004, the term “citizen science” (as
coined by Cornell University’s Rick Bonney) was still
new. An internet search yielded very little of relevant
interest. Apart from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology’s small
database of bird projects, there was no searchable listing
of activities that allowed non-professionals the chance to
be involved in scientific pursuits. That would soon
change—new tools were being developed that would
boost the citizen science movement enormously. Fuelled
by the internet, data processing software, and the ubiq-
uitous use of cell phones, it would become significantly
easier to connect people to formal and informal research
projects. Yet just a dozen years ago, it was still quite dif-
ficult to find these opportunities.
Among my more memorable projects in graduate
school was a paper I wrote on the rise and fall of the U.S.
Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which provid-
ed Congress with objective analyses of important issues
in science and technology from 1972 to 1995. Through-
out six administrations, both Republican and Democrat-
ic, this small agency provided Congress with unbiased
information about a host of critical scientific, technologi-
cal, and environmental issues—from acid rain to radio-
active-waste storage, from solar power to AIDS
prevention—before being shut down during the days of
Newt Gingrich’s reign as Speaker of the House. I proba-
bly read every OTA report the office produced during
its 23 years of existence, and many of the recommenda-
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
11
tions for reopening it after Congress shut it down. The
OTA proved to be a very influential creation, and a
number of other countries, especially in Europe, mod-
eled their own technology assessment institutions on it.
Yet it was defunded here, despite much critical acclaim
for its work, and without any true input from the public
on its worthiness.
For my master’s thesis I expanded on the issues
raised by the demise of the OTA, exploring how average
citizens can engage with the complexities of national
science policy, and how they can voice their knowledge
and values on an equal footing with acknowledged ex-
perts. It was then that I first truly encountered that re-
markable group of people known as citizen scientists
and the barriers they were trying to tear down.
Through their grassroots, bottom-up efforts, they
were aiding research by tagging butterflies, monitoring
water health, keeping an eye on bird migratory patterns,
and looking for new galaxies. But when it came to en-
gaging in policymaking decisions, they were shut out.
The forces against them were considerable, coming from
politics and industry. But there was also strong re-
sistance from the scientists themselves.
Scientists and other experts seemed to fear that the
lay public, largely lacking formal science education,
could not grasp technical concepts as they relate to poli-
cy. By and large, they concluded that unless people pos-
sessed credentialed scientific expertise, they should be
excluded from any discussion of how research into such
topics as, say, synthetic biology, biomedicine, alternative
energy, or climate change should be funded or applied.
To my mind, this was wrongheaded, and not just be-
cause a democratic government is supposed to represent
the will of its citizens. I thought it incredibly important
for all interested people to be involved in such decision
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12
making because we live in a society in which science and
technology are major drivers of social and economic
change—that’s why we invest huge sums of money in
them. The changes brought about by science and tech-
nology can be responsive to society’s needs and meet the
enormous challenges confronting all of us. Opening up
the process of how scientific resources are allocated and
assessed, or at the very least making these processes
more transparent, struck me as an obvious win-win: citi-
zens would be more knowledgeable about the science
being done in their name, scientists and policymakers
would be able to better anticipate challenges and do
some risk assessment before they rolled out new poli-
cies, and the societal benefits of our research and devel-
opment investments would be vastly improved.
I had expected the resistance I experienced from poli-
ticians I met with in those days. Newt Gingrich, for ex-
ample, offered the usual talking points for the demise of
the OTA under his watch: that it merely represented
bloated government, that it couldn’t offer neutral as-
sessments, and that if he needed a technological analysis
he could call the appropriate people himself. He viewed
the OTA as simply a unidirectional source of potentially
biased analysis, rather than as a way of engaging con-
stituents in science policy for the edification of both poli-
cymakers and the public.
But I was disheartened when in years to come I en-
countered a similar lack of understanding by scientists.
Speaking with me at an event on citizen engagement, for
example, was an official representative from a profes-
sional science association, who was ostensibly present-
ing in support of such lay participation. Before the event,
though, she leaned over to me to say: “By the way,
you’re completely misguided.” She elaborated, arguing
that there was already a system in place for citizen input
once a bill has been posted, called the “public consulta-
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
13
tion period,” when people could provide comments to
the bill. In her eyes, there was no need for upstream
public engagement of the sort that I advocated, especial-
ly with a population that isn’t particularly scientifically
literate. Never mind the fact that research by the Univer-
sity of Michigan’s Jon Miller found the scientific literacy
of U.S. adults is relatively high compared to other de-
veloped nations!
Changing the Current
That moment was really the start of my citizen sci-
ence advocacy, and it has shaped all my activities since.
Ten years ago, I started pushing to reopen the OTA,
which I thought had the most potential to bring together
the public and scientists in shaping science policy. I
supported efforts by professional science organizations
such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and members
of Congress, including Rush Holt, then a Representative
from New Jersey (and current CEO of the American As-
sociation for the Advancement of Science). However,
unlike the stated aims of such OTA supporters, my goal
was to embed mechanisms for public participation in the
policymaking process. To be clear, that was not their
primary goal at that time.
I founded the Science Cheerleaders, a group of more
than 300 current and former professional cheerleaders
from the NFL, NBA, and other sports leagues who are
pursuing science and engineering careers. From person-
al experience, of course, I knew that there were a large
number of sympathetic minds in this group. I also knew
that they offered a terrific opportunity to overturn stere-
otypical perceptions about the exclusivity of the scien-
tific world. With the support of professional sports
leagues, media partners like NBC Sports, the National
Science Foundation, Pop Warner youth leagues, and sci-
Cavalier
14
entific stars like Why Science? author Dr. James Trefil, the
Science Cheerleaders have become the “superheroes of
science” both on- and offline. At the same time, the
cheerleaders inspire everyday citizens to connect with
science—especially young women who may be consid-
ering STEM careers—and work to empower people to
weigh in on important science policy discussions.
I created a portal on the Science Cheerleaders website
for projects with which citizen scientists could become
involved. The combination of the cheerleaders sparking
excitement about science with a set of projects that were
open to enthusiastic citizens would, I thought, create a
process to unite the citizen’s desire to be heard and val-
ued, the scientist’s growing interest in the public’s in-
volvement, and government’s need to garner public
support. Eventually I imagined these inspired citizens
getting more involved in policy conversations and ex-
pressing their values and knowledge in influential ways.
To bring more attention to Science Cheerleaders and
the citizen science portal, I wanted to mix up the kinds
of projects that people could participate in on the site
and expand beyond what is traditionally thought of as
citizen science. Not that counting birds or bees or moni-
toring water quality weren’t important—far from it. But
I wanted to demonstrate the field’s incredible diversity
to professional scientists, policymakers, and most im-
portantly, to everyday citizens who weren’t yet sure
how to become involved in science. So the site posted
projects in fields as varied as archaeology, astronomy,
biology, cybersecurity, epidemiology, gaming, geogra-
phy, geology, programming, and zoology, among oth-
ers.
When the number of projects we were posting be-
came unmanageable for hosting on the Science Cheer-
leaders site, I launched SciStarter.com as a platform fully
dedicated to discovering, organizing, and participating
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
15
in citizen science projects. I wanted to make it easy and
fun for people to get involved in projects ranging in
commitment from one-off events like swabbing for mi-
crobes in Project MERCCURI (an extravagant acronym
for Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and
University Researchers on the International Space Sta-
tion)—which David Coil uses as an illuminating case
study of citizen science in microbiology in Chapter 6—to
long-term coastal monitoring programs. And the site
seems to be meeting a need for engaging people in sci-
ence and technology. With the help of a network of con-
tributors and media, government, and academic
partners, the platform currently hosts more than 1,600
projects and events with more than 50,000 citizen scien-
tist participants and more joining all the time.
Yet even as SciStarter rapidly grew and matured,
there still remained the problem of getting the public’s
voice to be better included in policymaking. I was in-
trigued by the advances other countries like Denmark
and the United Kingdom had made on this front, includ-
ing inaugurating methods of citizen participation and
stakeholder engagement in assessing emerging technol-
ogies and science-related issues like climate change. Was
something like that possible in the United States?
To answer these questions, I joined forces with Ari-
zona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy &
Outcomes, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, the
Museum of Science Boston, and the Loka Institute to
found the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science &
Technology (ECAST) Network in 2010. As a collabora-
tive endeavour between academia, informal science ed-
ucators, and policy partners, ECAST has been
instrumental in bringing citizens and experts together to
inform and improve decision making on science and
technology issues. Our most recent success was in host-
ing a forum on NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, which pro-
Cavalier
16
vided NASA administrators with public perceptions,
aspirations, and concerns about the agency’s space mis-
sion through dialog with a diverse group of informed
citizens. Other federal agencies, including the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the De-
partment of Energy have since enlisted ECAST and to-
gether, with SciStarter, we are forging new opportunities
for people to move between citizen science and “citizen
science policy.” Mahmud Farooque’s logic model in the
final chapter illustrates this vision.
My aim in all this—in the creation of Science Cheer-
leaders, SciStarter, ECAST, and this book—is ultimately
to empower ordinary people to contribute to science,
and for their voices to be influential in ongoing science
policy debates. It is to cast a wide net through the Sci-
ence Cheerleaders, to provide opportunities to actually
do science through SciStarter, and to move people to con-
tribute to related science policy discussions and shape
science through ECAST. Citizen science projects give
people confidence in their involvement in science, so it’s
vital that projects connect with people’s diverse interests
and values in ways that can lead to more profound en-
gagement. This is especially true when citizens seek to
change the status quo—scientific, social, or otherwise—
as in the powerful social movement-based citizen sci-
ence that Gwen Ottinger describes in Chapter 5.
There is already broad agreement that our educa-
tional priorities for our children must include a greater
emphasis on STEM subjects, and I naturally fully sup-
port all efforts to encourage this. But I and other citizen
science advocates—and many professional scientists—
think that concerns about scientific literacy and the in-
fluence of public values on science policymaking should
be the start of the conversation, rather than the end.
There is increasing opportunity today for scientists and
policymakers to inform a curious public about the work
An Unlikely Journey into Citizen Science
17
that they do, rather than assume few would be interest-
ed in it or capable of understanding it. But convincing
the scientific community and policymakers that the pub-
lic should be invited to participate in research and deci-
sion-making activities is only part of the equation.
Convincing the general public—those without an obvi-
ous, immediate stake in the outcome of the policy deci-
sion—to get involved is still a substantial challenge. Yet I
believe that change is coming.
This is not simply the pie-in-the-sky hope of an en-
thusiastic science cheerleader. Those shad fishermen
who worried about declining fish stocks in the Delaware
and Schuylkill rivers could see the impact that pollution,
overfishing, and dam construction was having on their
livelihoods. But more importantly, they could measure
this impact by counting the ever-smaller number of fish
that were moving upstream to spawn. These weren’t just
people with hunches; they were citizen scientists with
data.
By communicating these observations to policymak-
ers, the shad fishermen provided evidence to support
the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Polluting
industries were forced to clean up their acts, and fish-
blocking dams were altered or removed. Fishery manag-
ers placed restrictions on the shad catch, and hatchery
operations have released millions of young shad into the
rivers. Citizen science-influenced policy helped achieve
changes that reflect society’s shared priorities and val-
ues. The shad that once played such a foundational role
in both Philadelphia’s ecosystem and economy are slow-
ly returning.
That’s the kind of profound change I know citizen
science can incite.
Cavalier
18
Further Reading
Busch, A., & Kaspari, D. C. (2013). The Incidental Steward:
Reflections on Citizen Science. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press.
Citizen Science Association:
http://citizenscienceassociation.org
Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, the journal of the Citi-
zen Science Association: http://theoryandpractice.
citizenscienceassociation.org
Cooper, C. B. (forthcoming). Citizen Science: How Curious
People are Changing the Face of Discovery. New York,
NY: Overlook Press
Russell, S. A. (2014). Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing
Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the
World. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.
PART ONE
21
1
WHEN CITIZEN SCIENCE MEETS
SCIENCE POLICY
Eric B. Kennedy
Read a scientific magazine, visit a university campus,
or walk the halls of Congress and you may well hear ref-
erence to “citizen science.” It’s the subject of much discus-
sion, of expanding use in research communities, and even
of new federal legislation. According to many, citizen sci-
ence—put simply, public engagement in scientific re-
search and decision making—represents a radically new
way forward: a path that engages every kind of person in
research and decision making, democratizes science for
all, and offers a new distribution of power and influence
in universities and beyond. The term conjures visions of a
more inclusive world of science, a more engaged public
and citizenry, and rich treasure troves of data for address-
ing important problems.
Things haven’t always been this way. A few decades
ago, decisions were largely made by elites—academics,
governments, experts—who were insulated from public
input or even scrutiny. This rang especially true through
the first half of the 20th century, as much of the scientific
establishment became increasingly centralized, institu-
tionalized, and separated from the average citizen. Such a
Kennedy
22
shift away from public access occurred for a multitude of
reasons. In some cases, like agriculture or food systems,
the kinds of invention and innovation required to eke out
ever-larger incremental benefits required increasingly
complex and well-funded laboratories and research col-
laborations. In others, like energy production, the technol-
ogies were becoming larger and more complex (such as
the shift from unique heating in each home to a much
larger, more centralized power grid). Perhaps most evi-
dently, the rise of the American military-industrial com-
plex, centered on the atomic bomb, reinforced a
concentration of political power among a small subset of
scientists and military decision makers.
Even at the time, fears were rising about these shifts. In
1961, President Eisenhower famously warned of the risk
that “public policy could itself become the captive of a
scientific-technological elite.” Eisenhower feared, among
other concerns, that the military-industrial complex could
divert policy from national security ambitions toward
profit motives. Still others, like physicist Ralph Lapp, res-
onated with fears expressed much earlier. Like President
Wilson, who was quoted as fearing “a government of ex-
perts,” Lapp took exception to the increasing industriali-
zation and centralization of science. In his 1965 book
entitled The New Priesthood: The Scientific Elite and the Uses
of Power, he raised concerns about an emerging concentra-
tion of science for ends of military and political power.
Although this skepticism wasn’t without antecedents, it
grew in importance and awareness through the 1960s and
laid the groundwork for the citizen science movement that
would follow.
The rising credibility of citizen scientists, who dis-
played mighty influence across a range of social and polit-
ical arenas in the late 20th century, is different. Where the
technology critics expressed fear from afar about the sys-
tem as a whole, citizen scientists embrace and engage with
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
23
the system directly. Collectively, they are a group of ad-
vocates that seek a voice at the table of power, rather than
just knocking over the table entirely. If this is the defining
characteristic of citizen science, then the movement is im-
portant, powerful, and perhaps even world changing.
Is there enough substance to back up the enthusiasm
surrounding citizen science? What roles can citizens, their
interests, and their data play in decision-making and gov-
ernance? And, what does the future hold for this emerg-
ing movement? This chapter aims to provide a primer to
the subject: free of buzzwords, boosterism, and overly
optimistic claims, but grounded in the significant advanc-
es that citizen science has made over the short and long
terms, and its substantive potential for influencing policy,
government, and society writ large. To answer these ques-
tions, we begin by considering just what is meant by citi-
zen science, and offering a quick sketch of where this
movement sits in the long arc of scientific history. We then
turn to the challenges it presents to science, and a consid-
eration of how the citizen science movement might shape
policy, how policy may wish to shape the practice of citi-
zen science, and how the two ultimately represent a diffi-
cult and important clash.
What Is Citizen Science?
Given the proliferation of citizen science projects, it is
easy to think of the movement as having a long history.
As citizen science advocates point out, there is a long tra-
dition of regular citizens participating in activities like
bird watching (which, on occasion, informed local scien-
tific societies) that, in hindsight, appear as early forms of
citizen science. Moreover, there are countless examples of
citizens pushing back against elite and expert judgments,
from fighting for social causes (like to gain the right to
Kennedy
24
vote or to end slavery) to sociopolitical topics (like coun-
tering wars or calling for expanded human rights).
What, then, differentiates today’s citizen science from
forms of citizen resistance more generally? As hinted at
earlier, the mid-20th century represented a time of major
shift in the relationship between science and society. In
the most profound example, the emergence of nuclear
weapons, scientists had effectively attained the power to
destroy the world through technology. Moreover, citizens
had remarkably limited access to such powerful processes
and people. As the scientist and philosopher Michael Po-
lanyi argued in his 1962 article “The Republic of Science,”
the scientific enterprise had become a real and distinct
society, effectively cordoned off from the public. For Po-
lanyi, this implied a requirement to govern the republic in
a way that brought about social and scientific good, rather
than an establishment entangled with the interests of po-
litical leaders. Likewise, scholars like Don Price concur-
rently (1965) worried that science had become so powerful
that it threatened democratic processes and key checks
and balances required to protect public freedom. This un-
questioned priesthood of science rendered the public
voice unwelcome and unnecessary.
In contrast with the aims and methods of other citizen
resistance of the mid-20th century, therefore, the citizen
science movement took on a particular strategic goal. In-
stead of tearing down the institutions of power, early citi-
zen scientists aimed to be included and recognized as
legitimate experts. This was a move of expansion, inclu-
sion, and, at times, substitution, by inserting and recogniz-
ing their new voices over existing power interests.
Employing rhetoric, symbolism, and pragmatic strategy,
citizen scientists fought to be included in decision making
as legitimate partners.
Viewed in this wide lens, citizen science is a remarka-
bly encompassing term. It includes the kinds of projects
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
25
that are often cited in magazines and the news, such as
members of the public counting birds, measuring snow-
fall, or classifying pictures of galaxies on their computers.
It also includes broader efforts towards encouraging pub-
lic participation in science, whether by hacking or build-
ing new devices; partnering with scientists to develop and
design entire research projects; or deciding how results of
scientific research ought to be taken up in policy. And,
importantly, it has blurry edges, wherein many forms of
political advocacy—such as members of the public educat-
ing other citizens about scientific findings and opportuni-
ties for participation, pushing for particular regulatory
changes on the basis of scientific arguments, or confront-
ing the actions of companies that may be causing harm—
can be included in the realm of citizen science.
Many contest exactly what should be included under
the label of citizen science. While some take a broad view,
others restrict it more narrowly to particular kinds of ac-
tivities or contrast it with related areas (like crowdsourc-
ing, prizes, or DIY). Still other voices use their definitions
to include, in hindsight, a set of historical antecedents that
look alike. To understand these contrasting definitions, it
is worth briefly considering the history of how science
developed as it did.
How Did Citizen Science Emerge?
The early history of science and technology is largely
one of simultaneous co-discovery. Hundreds of years ago,
major innovations in how humans understood the world
or the tools they invented to interact with it were likely
concurrently discovered in many different locations, in-
dependent of one another. From a modern vantage, many
of these tales of innovation are told as the “great men”
stories, highlighting particular individuals, rarely with
formal scientific training, who made discoveries or shaped
Kennedy
26
technologies. Yet the historical studies of technologies
ranging from bicycles to agricultural breeding indicate
much more fractured, complex, and context-dependent
stories of technical development. Behind almost all of
these mythologized stories of venerated inventors lays a
reality where many so-called “average citizens”—farmers,
doctors, politicians, and clergy—used innovation to tack-
led the problems they faced on a day-to-day basis.
One inclination is to look back at either these “great
men” or diffuse innovation stories and label them as early
examples of citizen science in practice. Yet, although find-
ing such historical parallels may be convenient for a mod-
ern movement developing its identity and lineage, neither
example seems to capture the essence of citizen science.
“Great men” like Charles Darwin or Benjamin Franklin
received significant support from the scientific and elite
establishments of their time, and leveraged more power
and privilege in their scientific passions than the kinds of
publics engaged in citizen science today. Nor do diffuse
examples of co-discovery of technologies represent citizen
science in the modern sense, as the innovation and prac-
tice wasn’t tied to a desire to participate in scientific com-
munities or government decision making. Early
innovators in agriculture, for instance, didn’t refine crop-
breeding techniques to try to shape government policy,
but rather simply to improve their successes at a local,
individual level.
Over time, the institutional apparatus of the scientific
enterprise grew and formalized. Research became neces-
sarily more complex as goals shifted from initial discover-
ies in the field towards refining and increasing benefits.
This complexity translated into increasingly large research
teams, the importance of academic infrastructure to share
knowledge (e.g., journals, conferences, and networks),
and much more complicated laboratories and equipment
to conduct the required manipulations. These shifts had
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
27
social consequences, including the growth of a much more
contained, self-reliant, and defined set of scientific com-
munities, ranging from formal societies to informal no-
tions of who counted as an expert or scientist.
In the American context, it is difficult to overstate the
importance of the military—and especially the transform-
ative nature of nuclear weapons as a centralized, scientific
project—on these processes of formalization and commu-
nity definition. Many research projects relied on technolo-
gies that were developed in military labs, or were funded
via connections to potential military applications. Military
culture brought norms of hierarchy and formalization as
well, shaping the practices of some scientific fields. The
link between science, military, and economic progress re-
sulted in an increasingly tight connection between some
forms of science and government decision makers as well.
The creation of government agencies and departments
responsible for different fields of science (e.g., the Envi-
ronmental Protection Agency, NASA, or the Department
of Energy) further imbued particular forms of science with
socio-political power.
This is not to suggest that citizens ever disappeared
from the picture entirely. Members of the public were al-
ways engaged in various kinds of scientific activities.
Many hobbies, ranging from birding to operating ham
radios, persisted or grew during this time. Some of them
even connected with government or civil society applica-
tions, such as participating in the Audubon Society or as-
sisting in times of accidents or disasters.
A particularly vivid example of this kind of public en-
gagement was the “Baby Tooth” study run in the 1950s
and ‘60s by what would become the Greater St. Louis Cit-
izen’s Committee for Nuclear Information. Over more
than a decade of collection, roughly 320,000 baby teeth
were collected to analyze the impact of atomic testing on
radiation levels within American children’s teeth. The da-
Kennedy
28
ta, which demonstrated that children born in the height of
the Cold War had roughly 50 times more Strontium 90 in
their teeth than children born 15 years earlier, went on to
be used by physicists and physicians alike. It would ulti-
mately contribute to pressure for nuclear test ban treaties.
These efforts had a different character than today’s cit-
izen science. For many of the scientific hobbies like bird-
ing or ham radio, the urgency for a seat at the table, to be
represented, and to be welcomed by decision makers
wasn’t the defining passion. In the case of the baby tooth
study, it was an effort largely organized by community
members who already had a background in physics or
medicine. By contrast, when people refer to the citizen
science movement of today, they are often describing the
involvement of otherwise untrained members of the pub-
lic in policy-relevant questions.
When and where exactly this changed is the subject of
many histories (the next chapter by Cooper & Lewenstein,
for instance, provides a more thorough account). The
broad strokes, however, are clear. By the 1990s, new
groups represented the face of public engagement with
science. Among the most famous, influential, and now
archetypal of this movement were patient advocates in the
AIDS crisis. Concerned with how medical research was
being done (namely, that many patients involved in clini-
cal trials for new drugs were actually being given place-
bos—a death sentence), a force of activists emerged. These
groups used various scientific positions to argue for new
methods that would allow all patients to be given treat-
ment drugs, while still conducting medical research to
create new treatments.
As sociologist Stephen Epstein illustrated in his 1996
book, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of
Knowledge, these groups took on a new approach to inter-
acting with science. Patient activists didn’t take on an in-
terest in medicine as a hobby, nor as grassroots innovation
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
29
to solve their own problems (like farmers may have exper-
imented with new techniques hundreds of years earlier).
Rather, the activists had to lobby a much larger scientific
establishment—complete with its giant laboratories, huge
funding requirements, drug approval agencies and laws,
and massive body of research—to listen to new voices and
to take a new direction. This required something different
than just casual engagement with science: it required a
seat at the table, a voice before decision makers, and seri-
ous engagement with elites who had long been separated
from the public.
This reveals a key theme in the citizen science move-
ment: broadening judgments of expertise. As much as the
citizen science movement was reacting to the growth of
the technocratic elite, it largely wasn’t for the purpose of
tearing down existing experts. Rather, citizen scientists
were making a particular claim: that they had a kind of
expertise that not only needed to be respected and includ-
ed in decision making, but that was unique and even inac-
cessible to existing experts.
At first glance, this sounds like an extreme claim. After
all, scientists and researchers are conventionally seen as
the real experts; the ones able to discover and share scien-
tific truth with the population writ large. But, for citizen
scientists, the truth offered by traditional science was only
a small slice of reality. For citizen scientists, the realities
that mattered were visceral and close: the industrial plants
causing health impacts to the air they breathed on a daily
basis, or the doctors who had never known firsthand what
it meant to suffer from AIDS. Giving voice to these con-
cerns didn’t require tearing down existing experts. In-
stead, the strategy of citizen scientists was to embrace the
value and importance of existing experts (by reading their
research, having conversations with them, and becoming
fluent in the topics) in a way that built the productive rela-
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tionships that would allow citizen scientists to gain re-
spect too.
This isn’t to suggest that all citizen science projects
look exactly like the forms described above. Some exam-
ples lean more heavily on activism and particular public-
interest agendas (like air quality monitoring or patient
activism), while other projects fit into existing scientific
projects (like monitoring particular ecosystems or sorting
telescopic images of stars). The boundaries between the
related concepts of citizen science, crowdsourcing, and
activism are increasingly blurry.
Even with these caveats, however, it is essential to un-
derstand this tension between the long lineage and recent
innovation of the citizen science movement. Citizen sci-
ence isn’t a new phenomenon, as humans have always
been engaged in these kinds of sociopolitical struggles
over how to innovate in the face of challenges, who ought
to make decisions, and how to advance one’s own inter-
ests. But neither is citizen science a consistent thread
through history: the forms of citizen science we see and
talk about today are distinctively different in their ambi-
tions of sitting at the table of decision makers.
This particular form of citizen participation has signifi-
cant power to affect (and be affected by) the political land-
scape. Sometimes citizen science results appear in the
decision-making world as a source of data: a way to gath-
er intelligence and insights about an issue (often, but not
always, environmental) in ways poorly suited to tradi-
tional scientific study. Other times, the policy is acting on
behalf of citizen science, such as legislation currently un-
der preparation and consideration at the U.S. federal level
to enable agencies to better incorporate citizen scientists
into their activities. In still other examples, the idea of citi-
zen science becomes a proxy conversation or movement
for something much more profound: the questioning of
how public-government relations ought to work, of what
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
31
roles citizens and non-experts should be able to play in
decision making, and of challenging longstanding norms
that have excluded regular citizens from being involved in
scientific and technical decision making. In this chapter,
we’ll survey the field on all three of these issues.
Citizen Science for Policy
As was hinted at in the brief history above, the citizen
science movement has often been driven by a relentless
passion: protecting a particular species that may be in de-
cline, speaking up for a community of people affected by a
significant disease, or monitoring the health of an ecosys-
tem under attack. As detailed in the chapter by Cooper &
Lewenstein, these kinds of very specific, local, and
grounded concerns initially gave rise to a new voice in
science: science driven by community members them-
selves, rather than outside researchers. In turn, these
kinds of projects very naturally led to policy outcomes.
Birdwatchers tracking specific species could be leveraged
for protecting migratory pathways or breeding grounds.
Patient activism could be aimed at reforming clinical trials
(like the case of AIDS activists Cooper & Lewenstein dis-
cuss). Environmental monitoring could underpin pressure
for environmental justice in the face of expanding indus-
try or natural resource extraction.
Citizen scientists, therefore, already have important in-
fluence on the world around us through the fruits of their
labor. The data collected by citizen scientists has impacted
government policy, created new norms and abilities in
fields like environmental management, and has even
shifted the way that decision makers view the role of the
public. These general statements, however, give rise to
several specific questions about the nature of the citizen
science movement’s impact on policy. Where and when
do citizen scientists appear in policy? Are the data they
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produce reliable and sound for making real-world deci-
sions? How might this change as citizen science grows as
a movement? And are there possible harms or challenges
arising from integrating this kind of research?
To answer these questions, we must begin with a quick
introduction to the variety of projects and initiatives that
may fall under the banner of citizen science. Even the
most cursory introduction reveals something of a schism
within citizen science as a whole: what exactly counts as
an example of a citizen science project, versus any number
of related concepts like citizen activism, hackers, DIYers,
or hobbyists.
For some, citizen science is defined through a variety
of narrower lenses. This understanding of citizen science
largely draws on historical “quintessential examples,”
often grounded in the world of animal and environmental
monitoring. This view of citizen science leans heavily on
data collection and, to a lesser degree, data processing.
The citizen scientist serves as an educated, volunteer re-
searcher, albeit limited in his or her scope: collecting vari-
ous kinds of readings, counting different animals, or
perhaps performing somewhat rudimentary kinds of
analysis—especially those that are straightforward for a
human, but difficult to automate or massive in scope (e.g.,
sorting through hundreds of pictures to identify particular
kinds of images).
A characteristic example of this kind of project is wild-
life monitoring. The Monarch Joint Venture, for instance,
links together more than a dozen different regional pro-
jects that monitor monarch butterflies, their habitat, and
their migratory patterns. Citizen participants can join one
of these projects to record monarch sightings, share pho-
tographs, or even identify monarch eggs. The data are
often collected in conjunction with a university or non-
governmental organization, allowing the observations of a
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
33
large number of individuals to be aggregated into larger
patterns.
As the movement has grown over the past decade,
however, a number of its proponents have adopted a
much more encompassing approach. As a community,
these citizen scientists and organizers have taken on a
“big tent” mentality, characteristic of a movement more
eager to grow its numbers, allies, and momentum than to
prioritize demarcating what does and doesn’t count as an
example of citizen science. This broadening embraces a
wide variety of commitment levels (from participating in
a one-time bird count to tracking and sharing personal
health data for a lifetime), project scopes (from recording
plant counts via pencil and paper to launching cube satel-
lites with various instruments), topics (from the microbes
between your toes to sorting telescopic images of far-away
galaxies), levels of involvement (from collecting data for
existing ecological research projects to co-organizing and
developing a community-led project to address concerns
about pollution in your neighborhood), and activities (in-
cluding do-it-yourselfers, hackers, and activists).
This broadening also means that citizen science pro-
jects can have a wide array of strategic purposes. Conver-
sations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
for instance, illustrated at least four roles in which they’ve
seen successful citizen science projects:
Empowering communities, by encouraging citizens to
take an active role in collecting, processing, analyzing,
and applying information—and encouraging new
groups to participate and engage, especially those who
have previously been marginalized or excluded.
Establishing ongoing monitoring, especially where
citizens are able to collect (or have already started col-
lecting) much larger, more detailed, more thorough,
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and more regionally appropriate data than the agency
could collect on its own.
Extending research to questions, areas, and topics that
used to be beyond the capabilities of a government
agency (e.g., new species, locations, or questions), in-
cluding using citizen science to solicit various kinds of
public input (such as blended research and delibera-
tion activities).
Educating citizens about environmental (and other)
issues, through first-hand experiences that teach par-
ticipants about both science generally and the particu-
lar topic of study.
Even this range belies the full variance among citizen
science projects that have proved successful. Some citizen
science projects, for instance, involve citizens in later stag-
es of the work, such as interpreting and visualizing results
according to their values, perspectives, and priorities. Still
others integrate existing datasets (like satellite imagery)
with citizen contributions (such as having the public
‘adopt a pixel’ of the satellite image, and submit a pano-
rama from that location to provide additional data). In
short, citizen science efforts have expanded to cover a
tremendous range of research. Yet, this expansion gives
rise to several questions about the potential flaws and lim-
itations of using citizen science to inform public policy
and decision-making.
Can We Trust Citizen Science?
One perennial question of citizen science is whether its
data can be trusted. Is the information gathered by citi-
zens—especially if they’re relatively untrained compared
to the scientists in the area, or if they have particular activ-
ist interests—reliable enough to be the basis of policy
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
35
making? Yet, this question must co-exist with a larger
quandary: just how much can we trust science in general?
In conversations with various government agencies
and non-governmental organizations, questions about
whether citizen science results can be trusted were largely
met with rebuff and frustration. The generalized reaction
was straightforward: real challenges with the data quality
of citizen science parallel the challenges faced in all scien-
tific work. In other words, the results produced by citizen
scientists are not alone in needing to be carefully scruti-
nized on the basis of their methodology, quality assur-
ance, context, and application. Like all scientific findings,
they are best served by careful evaluation on a case-by-
case basis, and by integrating many different sources of
data.
Questions surrounding trust in science co-evolved
with the rise of the technical elites described earlier this
chapter. One reason was the increasing complexity of the
technoscientific challenges at hand. While some scientific
questions had very clear answers that were easy to vali-
date, many of the problems of the 20th and 21st century
were much more complex. In particular, the fields of
health and social sciences offer particularly vexing prob-
lems. Finding the cure for diseases that are a combination
of genetic and environmental factors, for instance, is diffi-
cult to solve quickly or conclusively.
Another reason is that the very establishment of a
technoscientific elite excluded many from participating in
science. Medical studies largely tested cures on male sub-
jects over females. Many of the research questions consid-
ered tended to be those of interest to well-to-do
populations over the impoverished (e.g., vastly more
money goes into cosmetic R&D in America than into
many deadly diseases in sub-Saharan Africa). Decades of
exclusion have not only led to a distrust of the scientific
enterprise, but also serious concerns over the legitimacy
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and accuracy of work that focused on an overly-narrow
population.
In short, the question of whether we can trust science is
just as difficult—or more difficult—as whether we can
trust citizen scientists. Moreover, there is reason to believe
that including citizens in the scientific process may well
help address both of these concerns. Expanding the scale
and scope of research through citizen volunteers may well
ameliorate many complex challenges. Furthermore, if citi-
zens are involved in the process of selecting and defining
research problems, topics that had previously been ex-
cluded from consideration by the scientific enterprise may
be investigated from important new perspectives.
Beyond this “skittishness” around the use of citizen
science, other open questions remain about the potential
of integrating citizen science into policy. As with all scien-
tific data, a major challenge is translating findings to poli-
cy makers in a way that actually influences decision
making. This is compounded by the need for additional
expertise in evaluating and integrating citizen science data
into other data sources, especially for researchers with
little familiarity with these emerging techniques. Citizen
science projects must also be relevant and timely, which
can prove challenging given the long timescale of many
such projects (especially those focused on long-term moni-
toring, but also in general, given the need for training par-
ticipants, allowing time for the research to be conducted,
and synthesizing results). These kinds of challenges also
help to separate the particular areas where citizen science
is the ideal approach from those where it may be poorly
suited.
Data “Fit For Purpose”
While the spread of citizen science is certainly interest-
ing, perhaps most important is the creation of techniques
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
37
“fit for purpose,” a phrase introduced to me by research-
ers at the EPA. Under a fit for purpose model, citizen sci-
ence is neither inherently good nor bad. Moreover, citizen
science should not be blindly adopted with the refrain
assigned to emerging computational power in the 1990s:
“better, faster, cheaper.” What matters instead is finding
the best method for answering a given research question
or achieving a particular aim, whether that method is citi-
zen science or something else. By focusing on finding the
best tool for a given task, the relative advantages of each
approach can be maximized.
For some purposes, for instance, very carefully
planned representative samples are important. Forming
environmental or health regulations, for instance, requires
kinds of knowledge generation that may often be best
suited to well-equipped labs or large-scale, centrally orga-
nized trials. By contrast, citizen science is often the most
appropriate method of identifying potential problems,
flagging areas for further research, establishing long-
standing baselines, or meeting the goals of empowerment,
extension, and education. In many cases, networks of citi-
zen scientists may already have established extensive da-
tasets, professional skills, or lived experience that help
improve the robustness and timeliness of future work. In
other situations, like backyard monitoring of snowfall lev-
els, citizens may be able to offer data at a much larger
scale or thorough resolution than traditional measures.
Some problems may incentivize particularly accurate and
committed public participation, such as homeowners
monitoring the groundwater quality in their wells, which
can benefit both their own family and environmental
agencies.
Largely, however, efforts to include citizen science in
policy have been relatively bottom-up. As opposed to top-
down directives to add citizen science approaches to exist-
ing projects, most of the spread of citizen science has been
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driven by passionate researchers and participants creating
and expanding projects. There is also variation between
the approaches of different government agencies because
of their differing data needs, agency missions, and re-
search capacities. While this has led to perhaps a slightly
slower expansion of total citizen science initiatives relative
to the desires of activists, it is largely advantageous: case-
by-case integration is closer to a “fit for purpose” ap-
proach, where citizen science is integrated when it is most
methodologically appropriate to the task at hand, and
where small-scale experimentation can help researchers
learn what’s possible, improve on their methods, and de-
velop new approaches to meaningfully include citizens.
Unintended Impacts
One concern with the rise of citizen science is a fear
that it might undermine or replace government-run moni-
toring programs. In this scenario, it becomes more diffi-
cult to justify the establishment or continuation of an
expensive research program (and the richness of profes-
sional knowledge, context, and capability with it) when
the data can be generated by free labor from volunteers.
These concerns also highlight broader questions about the
potentially exploitative nature of citizen science, particu-
larly if its participants are subject to personal liability
while conducting the work, or if their efforts are broadly
shared without compensation.
Several of those organizing citizen science projects,
however, suggested that it is far from likely that citizen
science efforts are sufficient to displace government-
supported initiatives. Even if citizen science projects in-
creased in scope by orders of magnitude, they are largely
complementary with existing research work. Considering
a broader definition of citizen science as well, such as the
development of lower-cost monitoring tools, citizen sci-
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
39
ence offers the potential for the expansion of existing data
generation projects, enabling government investment to
achieve a higher dollar-for-dollar value. Moreover, they
sustain a significant amount of synthesis and administra-
tive work to develop, maintain, and share the work of the
projects, as well as integrate it in the larger landscape of
science and science policy.
A more pressing question for many, however, was the
implication of citizen science on the policy process itself. If
citizen science’s growth—and the resulting proliferation
of cheap sensors, community activism, and public partici-
pation—is as successful as hoped, it challenges today’s
models of science policy. These tools enable a very direct
and quick-paced avenue of interaction with governments,
especially when compared with the relatively slower pace
of traditional academic research on topics like health and
environmental safety. In many cases, the data brought by
activists may be non-interoperable with existing data, or
represent a very different kind of knowledge than long-
term monitoring citizen science projects: a one-time spike
leveraged as a call for urgent action, for instance, versus a
rolling average. Such examples will inevitably force a re-
thinking of many facets of scientific decision-making—
fueled by citizen science, and similar kinds of community
participation.
Citizen science is also symbolic of a broader shift in
contemporary research toward “big data” and the use of
tremendously large datasets. Citizen science—particularly
those projects involving automated sensors or large-scale
participation—has the potential to yield huge volumes of
data. This pipeline can prove challenging, both with re-
spect to cleaning, integrating, and synthesizing data, but
also in terms of data storage, retention, and long-term use.
Like all data-heavy efforts, the use of large-scale citizen
science data will require the rethinking of many logistical
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questions about research, and retraining and retooling of
parts of the research enterprise.
What is clear, however, is that simply denying the
emergence of citizen science and these challenges is un-
tenable. The movement is growing, and will continue to
challenge governments and institutions alike. It is essen-
tial, therefore, to begin anticipating the impacts of citizen
science, and the potential policy options for developing it
to meet society’s needs.
Policy for Citizen Science
It is common to frame the intersection of citizen science
and public policy as a straightforward question: What can
the world of policy and governance do to support the
emergence of citizen science? This problem definition at
best offers a simplistic representation of the issues in play
and, at worst, a misrepresentation that obscures important
areas of open contention between the two worlds. To view
citizen science as an unadulterated good obscures the rich
and complex tensions that arise as citizen science’s pur-
view—and corresponding influence on policy—expands.
Moreover, such a view risks replicating many of the very
problems citizen science seeks to address: a monolithic
view of what counts as “good” scientific practice, the insti-
tutionalization of particular voices in particular roles (and
the corresponding exclusion of others), and a pre-
commitment (at times, independent of context) to particu-
lar methods of scientific practice.
This is not to suggest that the government does not
have a vital role to play in empowering citizen science
efforts—nor that these tasks are unimportant. Many chal-
lenges with integrating citizen science into public policy
are already known, at least to a degree, and can be ad-
dressed through various government policies. In conver-
sations with experts and thought leaders in citizen science,
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
41
many emphasized a similar series of questions and con-
cerns. For many agencies and employees, one of the most
direct limiting factors is time. Overworked, under-
resourced, and under significant pressure to fulfill a num-
ber of objectives, agencies have little time to invest in
learning new methods and developing new procedures to
integrate a new kind of scientific practice. This naturally
leads to a more diffuse, decentralized approach, wherein
agencies that are supportive tend to encourage the inclu-
sion of citizen science on a case-by-case basis, where re-
searchers are willing and able to do so through their own
efforts. While this could theoretically lead to strong, con-
textually appropriate applications of citizen science, it also
can undermine the need for systemic integration, mutual
learning, and the implementation of citizen science in the
places where it might be most beneficial (rather than in
the places where the project leaders are the most interest-
ed).
This pressure on time and resources is augmented by a
frequent lack of institutional support. Until recently (and
even now, in many agencies), those individuals interested
in pursuing citizen science have largely had to develop
their skills on an individual basis. Moreover, because citi-
zen science is often not the norm, they are left pioneering
integrative methods on their own, including addressing
supervisor hesitation, dealing with questions about data
integration and access, and having to defend both their
own projects and citizen science generally.
A plethora of ongoing and emerging efforts support
the development of citizen science and address these
kinds of challenges. Like on other policy issues, these tools
include signaling support in formal and informal ways,
providing resources for the expanding community, and
providing clarity in laws and precedents.
The first step towards developing pro-citizen science
policy is through formal and informal methods of signal-
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42
ing. Some of these efforts are large-scale, such as the
Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act, a bill which was in-
troduced in the United States Congress in 2015. While the
act itself offered a degree of formal support, because it
was relatively thin on specific deliverables (e.g., funding
or requirements), its informal role was perhaps more sig-
nificant: to signal to government agencies that citizen sci-
ence was something to encourage, pursue, and
incorporate into their formal procedures. Indeed, much of
the signaling and formal implementation rests with agen-
cies themselves, many of whom (including agencies like
NASA and the EPA) have begun efforts to include citizen
science in some projects, to participate in networks, work-
shops, or conversations about citizen science, or simply to
allow their staff to comfortably consider citizen science on
a case-by-case basis.
Once a government has signaled openness toward a
particular kind of activity, more practical questions of re-
sourcing can come to the fore. In this case, efforts at re-
sourcing citizen science in the U.S. government have
largely leaned on experience-, advice-, and resource-
sharing initiatives, as opposed to large-scale financial in-
vestment. Experts at the White House and several agen-
cies, for instance, have been eager to share the value and
successes of “Communities of Practice” established to al-
low their employees to share best practices, lessons
learned, and methods and models for replication. Several
other initiatives, both domestically and abroad, have
worked to develop “citizen science toolkits” to enable
government agencies and researchers to more smoothly
integrate citizen science approaches into new and existing
projects. Indeed, such toolkit efforts have become so
prominent that one expert in the field recently expressed
frustration that yet another group was “going to spend
two years rebuilding all the same toolkits” to support be-
ginners at citizen science projects, when the expert would
rather “see people roll their eyes when you talk about
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
43
why [citizen science] is an amazing and awesome thing.”
Some financial support may become available as well, es-
pecially as the world of funded prizes (e.g., large prizes
designed to incentivize private-sector solutions to vexing
challenges, such as private space flight through the X-
Prize) begins to both interact with and integrate with citi-
zen science initiatives.*
The third role the government can play to support citi-
zen science is by establishing clarity in precedents and in
laws in such initiatives. Several agencies, for instance,
identified internal concerns about the potential legal vul-
nerability that could arise from citizen science projects for
a host of reasons: issues like intellectual property, liability
for volunteers, data sharing, and legislative and regulato-
ry impact. Although large-scale legislation like the
Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act can play an initial
role in signaling the acceptability of citizen science, the
actual battles of liability, open-access, and unexpected
impacts will likely be fought in the weeds—at the level of
local cases, specific implementations, and one-off chal-
lenges. Indeed, it is these questions that begin to hint at
the more complex nature of the citizen science and policy
interface.
Alongside many of these logistical challenges with citi-
zen science—and the government policies and initiatives
designed to address them—there remain much deeper
tensions between citizen science and the policy environ-
* Prizes also offer an interesting case of the power of government
signaling. An American government official reported that one
act (America COMPETES) authorizing the use of prizes led to an
order of magnitude increase in the number of prizes being of-
fered. Yet, the official noted, only about a quarter of those prizes
officially cited the authorization of the act. Three quarters of the
new rush resulted, at least in part, from the informal signaling of
the openness to and ability of prizes, rather than the formal au-
thorization to use them.
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44
ment. As is explored further in the next section, in some
ways citizen science represents a fundamental confronta-
tion with the policy world. It reinvigorates questions
about who ought to be involved in making decisions, how
they ought to do so, and what norms and expectations
define this new world. These subversions lead to challeng-
ing tensions that show up in seemingly unrelated policy
questions, like those of legality, ethics, and the “ideal”
scientific method.
One set of tensions includes the legal dimensions of cit-
izen science. In a traditional policy-making environment,
those conducting research or working on behalf of deci-
sion makers are often formal employees or contractors.
Over the past century, these groups have expended con-
siderable effort to clarify the laws that they operate under,
and to ensure that those laws afford protections to both
the employers and the employees. When it comes to citi-
zen science, however, uncertainty remains about the legal
responsibilities and liabilities associated with the inclu-
sion of volunteers in scientific projects. Both the issues
and perspectives are numerous. Who is liable for injuries
or costs resulting from accidents involving citizens partic-
ipating in such projects? How might this change with dif-
ferent levels of formality or agency involvement (e.g.,
hobbyists reporting data they collect during long-standing
hobbies, versus citizens actively recruited as data collec-
tors for a particular government-supported project)? What
kinds of measures must be taken to ensure volunteer safe-
ty? Who has the responsibility for overseeing these
measures?
Such legal questions are fundamentally ethical as well.
While many government agencies are rightfully con-
cerned with questions of liability, these concerns are often
proxies for underlying ethical or moral struggles about
treating other individuals and communities in virtuous,
positive ways. These questions become complex in the
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
45
world of citizen science, where data are often highly per-
sonal (e.g., health data collected from wearable technolo-
gies), sensitive (e.g., data that, even in aggregate, could
provide companies or governments with knowledge
about your daily activities and values), or significant (e.g.,
knowledge that is closely guarded by a community or in-
digenous group). The use of the data is similarly ambigu-
ous: under which conditions, towards what ends, and
over what timespans can the data be investigated?
Although efforts by institutional review boards (IRBs)
and progress towards so-called “open data” can help ad-
dress some of these concerns, they ripple forward into
their own challenges. Though the protections offered by
IRBs and ethics procedures address some of these ques-
tions, they also result in a very different regulatory envi-
ronment between the United States and other locations—
the former’s reliance on IRBs and other institutional
mechanisms undermining the kind and pace of innova-
tion in citizen science methods that some experts report
seeing in Europe. (Take, for instance, the Paperwork Re-
duction Act, meant to reduce the paperwork burdens
placed on individual citizens, which one government offi-
cial cited as adding approximately a year—of paperwork,
ironically—to the process of developing a citizen science
project.) Moreover, while open data movements can help
to address some concerns about access to one’s own data
(and are sometimes required by federal law), it also opens
the floodgates of potential data use by unintended audi-
ences, such as corporations mining data for commercial
purposes.
In short, while some boosters of citizen science may
argue that the role of policy is to clear the landscape for
the proliferation of such projects, the reality is much more
nuanced. Questions of “policy for citizen science” are not
simply questions of whether citizen science should be
permitted or encouraged. Rather, they’re much more open
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46
deliberations about the kinds of citizen science that should
be encouraged, how it should be managed in particular
(and sometimes particularly sensitive) contexts, and the
unintended consequences it may have in future applica-
tions and unexpected uses. Indeed, this suggests a more
fundamental question to be asked of citizen science: how
does it challenge our traditional norms of government and
policy, and how should we respond to those challenges?
Citizen Science Meets Policy
As has been demonstrated thus far, citizen science not
only has tremendous potential for influencing policy, but
already plays a major role in many existing avenues of
research. Policy can serve as a lever to address the limiting
factors, but it ultimately must engage in a more nuanced
conversation about the particular forms of citizen science
we wish to enact and the values behind them. This con-
versation is driven in large part because of the different
ideals espoused by each field: the expert-driven process of
traditional public decision making, and the citizen-driven,
non-hierarchical nature of many forms of citizen science.
This challenge by citizen science towards the norms of
traditional government decision-making is part of a much
larger call for renewed and reinvigorated forms of democ-
racy. This movement is certainly most prevalent in the
American context, but is echoed in the Commonwealth, in
Europe, and around the globe. It is found in the emerging
push to include previously marginalized communities in
government decision-making and scientific processes; to
increase participation in democratic processes among
youth and other communities; to make data and research
more openly accessible and freely available; and even to
hold governments to account for overreaching programs
of surveillance or policing.
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
47
In many ways, citizen science captures the best of in-
tentions behind these calls. It pushes for a science that is
inclusive, open, and transparent. It calls for the remaking
of expert processes in ways that invite new members to
the table, and that allow avenues for all communities to
feel ownership and opportunity when it comes to scien-
tific processes. And it holds research—especially publical-
ly funded research—to account through demands for
open access, open data, and open lines of communication
with researchers and users. Ultimately, it aspires to open
pathways for participation in science, and to influence
decision making, to anyone who seeks them.
These efforts challenge not only the norms of the scien-
tific enterprise, but many of the values of government.
The efforts of citizen scientists to participate are no longer
restricted to data collection. They call for a chance to par-
ticipate in designing research, determining which ques-
tions get asked (and where, and how), and influencing
how these data shape decisions and actions far into the
future. The significance of these desires is not lost on the
citizen science advocates seeking them. On multiple occa-
sions in conversation, for instance, citizen scientists and
allies described the “subversive” power of citizen science
to “catalyze a revolution” such that “participatory meth-
ods become the norm.” These are pressures that will fun-
damentally reshape science, policy, and government as
we know them.
Exactly how these institutions will be reshaped is
much more difficult to say. At this stage, it is clear that
our institutions are struggling to respond to these new
forms of data and process. Some of these struggles are
fairly predictable in the context of an emerging move-
ment, like many long-established researchers who may
question the validity or value of citizen science in their
work. Many struggles are much more substantive and
offer pause to even those advocating for the emergence of
Kennedy
48
citizen science. Agencies wonder how new forms of da-
ta—that don’t comply with well-founded standards for
measurement, for instance—ought to be integrated into
the processes of creating, changing, and enforcing legisla-
tion. Others are concerned with the rapid pace of citizen
science, which often is alien to the moderate tempos of
many scientists, labs, and long-term studies. Still more
wonder about the representativeness of citizen science,
and whether particular citizen science projects risk mar-
ginalizing some people from participation in this new
wave of efforts.
The very act of surfacing these questions has value.
Questions of validity, standards, process, representative-
ness, and inclusivity have always been central to the scien-
tific enterprise. These are not—or at least should not be—
new questions, even if they have long been obscured or
overlooked in the quest to “do science.” What kind of data
should drive regulatory processes, for instance, should
not be a taken-for-granted assumption, but should rather
be subject to explicit, regular, and reflective consideration.
Determining which research questions are worth asking,
what kinds of methods should be used to answer them,
and which people and communities might have relevant
knowledge—these should all be questions scientists ex-
plicitly engage with through all stages of their research.
In short, whether one conceives of citizen science in a
narrow way, or much more broadly, it is clear that it chal-
lenges our norms about how science and governance
should be done. In none of these challenges should we
assume that citizen science offers a perfect or complete
answer, or an alternative model that should be adopted
wholesale and without reflection. Rather, it is the process
of asking these questions and engaging in explicit reflec-
tion and redesign that is most valuable.
When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy
49
Conclusion
The world of citizen science is rapidly emerging and,
in many contexts, is already upon us. It’s a massively di-
verse field, ranging from projects that engage the public in
bird watching or air quality monitoring, through to re-
search efforts where members of the public themselves
drive the very design of the entire project. Citizen science
has provided an untold amount of data for research, and
has galvanized efforts up to and including a Congression-
al act to support its growth.
In the chapters that follow, we offer a glimpse of the
past, present, and future of citizen science. From a history
of the field to several in-depth examples of its use today,
this book provides a quick guide to what people mean
when they refer to “citizen science,” and how it might im-
pact everything from government laws to private busi-
nesses, and from worldwide environmental monitoring to
your very own health. At the same time, the chapters offer
implicit and explicit connections back to the questions and
topics raised in the past few pages. How will citizen sci-
ence affect the decisions made in this world? How might
governments and other institutions try to empower or
shape it? And how might it cause us to reimagine and re-
design government and society itself?
Citizen science is neither intrinsically good nor bad. It
has the potential to make a life-and-death difference for
communities that have long been excluded from decision
making, while also containing the possibility of tremen-
dous risk and challenge. It’s an essential topic to know
and understand for two reasons. First, citizen science and
its related movements are already having a transforma-
tional impact on science, often for the better, and are
bound to expand in scope. Second, and perhaps most im-
portantly, citizen science has the power to raise many
questions about the who, how, when, where, and why
behind science and decision making—questions that are
Kennedy
50
long overdue to be asked, and incredibly important to
grapple with.
Further Reading
Bowser, A. and Shanley, L. (2013). New Visions in Citizen
Science. Wilson Center, Case Study Series Volume 3.
https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/new-
visions-citizen-science
Corburn, J. (2005). Street Science: Community Knowledge and
Environmental Health Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press.
Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalogue:
https://ccsinventory.wilsoncenter.org/
Gellman, R. (2015). Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science, and the
Law: Legal Issues Affecting Federal Agencies. Wilson Cen-
ter, Policy Series Volume 3.
https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/crowdso
urcing-citizen-science-and-the-law-legal-issues-
affecting-federal-agencies
Haklay, M. M. (2015). Citizen Science and Policy: A European
Perspective. Wilson Center, Case Study Series Volume
4. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/citizen-
science-and-policy-european-perspective
Ottinger, G. (2010). “Buckets of resistance: Standards and
the effectiveness of citizen science.” Science, Technology
& Human values 35(2): 244-270.
51
2
TWO MEANINGS OF CITIZEN
SCIENCE
Caren B. Cooper and
Bruce V. Lewenstein
An Initial Story of Citizen Science: Democratized Citi-
zen Science
In 1981, AIDS was recognized as an epidemic. In 1985, the
HIV antibody test became available to the public. Before there
were effective treatments, people without symptoms were learn-
ing that they were infected. Seasoned activists in the gay com-
munity came to realize that the future of their health required a
close working relationship with immunologists, virologists, mo-
lecular biologists, epidemiologists, and physicians.
These AIDS activists took a four-pronged strategy to gain
credibility and authority. First, by attending conferences, cri-
tiquing research papers, and receiving tutoring, activists
learned the language of researchers and pharmaceutical compa-
nies, and the culture of medical science. Once activists were able
to talk about viral assays, reverse transcription, cytokine regula-
tion, and epitope mapping, scientists were receptive to discus-
sions. Second, activists represented people with HIV/AIDS and
helped ensure that enough people would enroll in treatment
trials and comply with protocols to make the trials scientifically
Cooper & Lewenstein
52
useful. Third, activists shifted the discourse away from historic
abuses of clinical trials tainted by lack of informed consent,
moving instead to a conception of experimental treatments as a
social good to which everybody should have equal access. They
argued for the right of human subjects to assume the risks of
experimental therapies and to be informed partners in research.
Finally, activists and researchers who believed drugs should be
tested in real-world situations with heterogeneous groups
changed the protocols for clinical trials.
Ultimately, research improved as treatment activists—
members of the lay public—influenced not only the design, con-
duct, and interpretation of clinical trials, but also the speed with
which they were carried out. On the basic premise that AIDS
clinical trials were simultaneously research and medical care,
the timeframe for testing the safety and efficacy of AIDS drugs
was reduced to months, rather than years.
A Second Story of Citizen Science: Contributory Citizen
Science
eBird is a free, online citizen-science project that began in
2002, within which a global network of bird watchers contribute
their bird observations to a central database. Well over three
million people have engaged in eBird: in 2015 alone, over 1.5
million people engaged with eBird via the website or mobile de-
vices. Over the years, 270,000 participants have submitted data
(<10%) and an estimated 1% have submitted 99% of data. The
1% includes the world’s best birders as well as less skilled but
highly dedicated backyard bird watchers. Since 2006, eBird has
grown 40% every year, which makes it one of the fastest grow-
ing biodiversity datasets in existence. It has amassed more than
280 million bird observations from almost two million locations,
with observations from every country on the planet.
The most frequent use of the eBird database is through
handheld apps that people use to figure out where to go bird-
watching. In the early years, 2002-2005, with the slogan “Bird-
ing For a Purpose,” the project failed to engage a sufficient
Two Meanings of Citizen Science
53
number of birders. In 2006, project managers changed their
strategy, and introduced the tagline “Birding in the 21st Centu-
ry.” The shift in philosophy, as illustrated by the shift in slo-
gans, made the project successful. eBird moved away from
appealing to a birder’s sense of duty, succeeding instead by help-
ing birders embrace the excitement of getting better at their hob-
by while simultaneously impacting the future.
The project leaders showed other birders how using eBird
makes them better birders. And better birders make better sci-
ence, because they provide better data. For example, they submit
complete checklists. Initially, 75% of submissions to eBird were
incomplete checklists; now over 80% are complete. The last two
State of the Birds reports (created by a coalition of conservation
organizations) relied on eBird data to examine species occur-
rence, habitat types, and land ownership at a level of detail nev-
er achieved before. These reports inform decisions of the U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service. The Nature
Conservancy uses eBird data to identify which rice farmers in
the Central Valley of California they should ask to flood their
fields at just the right time for migrating waterfowl. Researchers
have written more than 100 peer-reviewed publications using
eBird.
The examples above can both be described as “citizen
science.” The first fits a use of the term introduced in the
mid-1990s by British sociologist Alan Irwin (1995) to de-
scribe a more democratic, participatory science. The sec-
ond fits a use of the term that can be traced back to Rick
Bonney, then a program director at the Cornell Laboratory
of Ornithology, as he tried to describe projects where non-
scientists contributed scientific data. Below we explain
these two meanings of the phrase citizen science, give a
brief account of how they emerged, and explore the sweet
spot where the two overlap.
Cooper & Lewenstein
54
Alan Irwin: The Citizenship of Science
In the late 20th century, historians and sociologists of
science increasingly understood that science is embedded
in the fabric of society. Consequently, some aspects of sci-
ence are shaped by major threads in that fabric. For exam-
ple, institutional forces (such as military and corporate
interests) may dominate scientific agendas, instead of the
agendas representing the needs and desires of broader
publics. One can see this in the way that interests of the
pharmaceutical industry drive much research on cures for
cancer, even though some public interest groups suggest
that we need more research on the environmental causes
of cancer. Irwin’s work—in a 1995 book titled Citizen Sci-
ence—addressed the varied social pressures shaping sci-
ence by seeking to reclaim two dimensions of the
relationship of citizens with science:
1. Science should address the needs and concerns of citi-
zens, and seek to meet those needs.
2. The process of producing reliable knowledge could be
developed and enacted by citizens themselves. People
bring into science such things as local contextual
knowledge and real-world geographic, political, and
moral constraints generated outside of formal scientific
institutions.
Though Irwin’s idea of a more democratic science has
been widely used by scholars in the sociology and politics
of science, his use of the term “citizen science” did not
itself acquire scholarly cachet. Instead, researchers came to
use terms like “activist science” or “public engagement.”
Rick Bonney: Contributing Observations to the Scien-
tific Method
The second meaning of citizen science developed in
ornithology, when Bonney used it to describe birdwatch-
Two Meanings of Citizen Science
55
ers’ voluntary contributions of observations across North
America. According to Bonney, the term came to him as
he stared out the window while writing a grant proposal
in 1994 to support collection of those contributions. He
used the phrase publicly in a 1996 magazine article, not
knowing about Irwin’s work. “Citizen science” became
widely used at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; then, as
the Lab of Ornithology developed new projects and con-
nected with analogous volunteer efforts by other organi-
zations, the term spread.
In 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary documented
that the phrase citizen science was actually used before
Irwin and Bonney. In 1989, the National Audubon Society
used the term in a way similar to Bonney’s use—in their
case to describe a program where volunteers collected rain
samples, tested the acidity levels, and sent results to
Audubon headquarters. The OED defined citizen science
as “the collection and analysis of data relating to the natu-
ral world by members of the general public, typically as
part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.”
Thus the earliest use of the term described projects in
which a professional entity designed a scientific project
and geographically dispersed volunteers contributed ob-
servations, usually in ways that aligned with their hobbies
and interests. Because of the large number of these pro-
jects, the term has most frequently been equated with
these top-down projects, with an emphasis on volunteer
data contributions. More recently, the term has been used
to describe a wide variety of styles in which the public
helps carry out any of the steps of the scientific method,
whether conceiving of the research questions, designing
methods, collecting the data, and/or interpreting results.
These other styles include projects that involve more col-
laboration between scientists and nonscientists in project
design and even projects that emerge from community
Cooper & Lewenstein
56
needs with only advisory input from professional scien-
tists.
The second usage of citizen science gained popularity
with the media. By the early 21st century, a community of
project developers sought to unite various public en-
gagement practices into a professional field of practice.
But in the process, these practitioners recognized draw-
backs in the term citizen science. Some felt the word “citi-
zen” excluded those not claiming citizenship in the
country where they contributed to projects (such as mi-
grant workers engaged in community-based forestry to
sustainably harvest salal, a non-timber forest product
used in the floral industry). Others felt the term only per-
tained to contributory style projects and therefore exclud-
ed community-based projects (such as projects monitoring
polluted waste emerging from industrial plants). Still oth-
ers felt the term required the abandonment of other terms
with longer histories, such as participatory action research
and community-based management.
Although each of these critiques raised issues similar
to those addressed in Irwin’s 1995 study, few people in
the practitioner community knew of that scholarly work.
In 2009, an effort was made to identify a broader term, re-
naming the field as public participation in scientific re-
search, or PPSR. But by the middle of the second decade
of the 21st century, the term citizen science had become the
most popular, with little recognition that the phrase unin-
tentionally co-opted Irwin’s original intent.
The History of Citizen Science
Although the term is relatively new, the practice is old.
The professionalization of modern scientific practices oc-
curred in the late 19th century. Before scientists were called
scientists, they were called men of science and natural phi-
losophers. Before citizen science was called citizen science,
Two Meanings of Citizen Science
57
the practice of gathering observations by enlisting the help
of hundreds, even thousands, of ordinary people was not
referred to by any particular term at all. Even relatively
recently, when initiated by conservation organizations
like the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in
1982, the practice of enlisting the lay public in monitoring
beaches and collecting data on turtle nesting was simply
termed volunteer monitoring. The practice of what is now
frequently called citizen science did not begin with the
coining of the term. We can use the term citizen science
with historic activities and see that leaders in science in
the 18th and 19th century carried out citizen science.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson made plans for the collection
of weather data across the state of Virginia via what
would today be called contributory citizen science. Begin-
ning in the late 1840s, U.S. Naval officer Matthew Maury
created maps of the seasonal distribution of whales and of
ocean wind and currents by aggregating observations re-
ported by thousands of military and merchant vessels.
William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, won a Royal
medal for work based on almost a million observations of
the tides systematically, and synchronously, collected by
lay people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in 1835.
Denison Olmsted, professor at Yale, crowdsourced meteor
observations in 1833.
So for more than 200 years, scientists have been
crowdsourcing observations. Today citizen science is an
umbrella term under which to describe a practice that is
occurring in many disciplines in which volunteers collect
and/or process data. Many whole fields have long histo-
ries of such a practice. For example, the longest-running
meteorological records in the United States were collected
by volunteers in the National Observers Network, which
started in 1880. The longest running ornithological sur-
veys in the United States have been carried out by bird
watchers in the Christmas Bird Count since 1900.
Cooper & Lewenstein
58
Other fields have shorter histories of such practices,
with the speed and ubiquity of communication and in-
formation technologies assisting in creating new research
frontiers. For example, volunteers in exclusively online
projects solve three-dimensional puzzles of protein fold-
ing, individuals use automated sensors to detect earth-
quakes, and indigenous people in non-literate
communities use smartphones to map important natural
resources. Public and scientist collaborations continue to
expand using a variety of labels: for example, community-
based natural resource management, participatory action
research, participatory forestry, and volunteer geographic
information. Despite its limitations, citizen science pro-
vides a useful, catchall term for all contemporary activities
in which the public is involved in the scientific method.
Yet there is still the question of how the “public partic-
ipation” type of citizen science links with the “democratic
action” idea introduced by Irwin. If the term has come to
represent a multitude of ways that the public is involved
in science, what distinguishes it from Irwin’s initial intent?
In the practitioner world, citizen science originally re-
ferred only to participation in data collection; it then ex-
panded to practices that include the public in other
aspects of the scientific method, such as formulating the
question and interpreting data. Nonscientists, however,
can engage in the production of reliable knowledge (also
known as “science”) in ways other than contributing data.
Publics can pose original questions. They can identify rel-
evant variables and sources of data that professional sci-
entists would miss. They can shape the norms and
practices established around the scientific enterprise of
validating knowledge. Each of these contributes to a more
democratic vision of science embedded in society. While
the “participatory” version of citizen science describes
how people can serve as instruments in the scientific
method, the “democratic” version shows how people can
influence and transform the larger scientific enterprise.
Two Meanings of Citizen Science
59
The term is coming full circle. Increasingly, practition-
ers of the “participatory” citizen science see “democratic”
citizen science as their goal. Particularly in projects that
involve environmental monitoring and environmental
justice, practitioners and participants seek to transform
the power dynamics of local, regional, national, and even
international communities. They seek to exercise power
that challenges the interests of large government, corpo-
rate, or even academically-based research communities.
The technical details explored in the subsequent chap-
ters of this book largely relate to crowdsourcing observa-
tions by the public (the participatory model). But
ultimately, a larger reason for refining citizen science
methods is to increase capacity for research agendas to
align with public interests. Practitioners of citizen science
seek a hybrid of the Bonney/OED and Irwin meanings:
essentially, a gold standard for citizen science practice in
which people do more than contribute data, and research-
ers do more than use the data. Together, a new relation-
ship between scientists and the public will be created.
Citizen science strives for designs that will achieve what
Irwin envisioned with his original use of the term: scien-
tists engaging with people in ways that deeply shape
what we know about the world.
A Third Story of Citizen Science: Democratized and
Contributory
With a phone call to Marc Edwards, an engineering profes-
sor at Virginia Tech in April 2015, LeeAnne Walters, a resident
of Flint, Michigan, set in motion the development of the Flint
Water Study, a citizen science project to measure lead levels in
tap water. Walters was a stay-at-home mom who could not get
state or local officials to respond to her concerns about rusty
orange tap water, thinning hair, and skin irritations in her
home.
Cooper & Lewenstein
60
Edwards responded with citizen science. For preliminary da-
ta, he taught Walters to take tap water samples that he could
test. Even though Edwards found exceedingly high levels of lead
in Walters’s water, he was initially ignored when he brought the
findings to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So Ed-
wards created the Flint Water Study with his students, some
funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation, and more
funds from an online crowdfunding campaign. Participants in
the Flint Water Study received special water vials, collected tap
water according to a specific protocol, and mailed the samples
for processing at Virginia Tech. Data were publicly available
and displayed. Walters created the “Water Warriors” to collect
samples and helped them use the data to support their political
action.
The results of the project garnered national media attention
and broader public pressure, forcing government actions (short-
term provisioning of bottled water, testing of blood levels,
movement towards long-term solutions) and inspiring commu-
nity service (e.g., hundreds of union plumbers installed water
filters for free). The project that began with data collection be-
came a key element of a national political debate about social
power in settings where technical expertise is necessary.
The third story of citizen science illustrates the
achievement of “democratic” citizen science through the
“contributory” style of citizen science. One way of under-
standing the relationship between the meanings of “citi-
zen science” explored in this chapter is that the
“democratic” definition represents a larger context in
which the “contributory” style of citizen science resides.
The lowest common denominator to citizen science pro-
jects is the collection and/or processing of data. From that
focal point, the collaboration between scientists and non-
scientists can expand. If the collaboration expands
enough, the resulting new relationship then takes on the
vision presented by Irwin, characterized by new perspec-
tives, collaborative action, trust, etc., leading ultimately to
societal influence shaping scientific agendas and norms.
Two Meanings of Citizen Science
61
Further Reading
Ballard, H. L. & Belsky, J. M. (2010). “Participatory action
research and environmental learning: implications for
resilient forests and communities.” Environmental Edu-
cation Research 16: 611-627.
Bonney, R. (1996). “Citizen Science: A Lab Tradition.” Liv-
ing Bird 15(4): 7-15.
Bonney, R., Ballard, H., Jordan, R., McCallie, E., Phillips,
T. Shirk, J., & Wilderman, C. C. (2009). Participation in
Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Po-
tential for Informal Science Education CAISE Inquiry
Group Reports. Washington, DC: Center for Advance-
ment of Informal Science Education.
Conde, M. (2014). “Activism mobilizing science.” Ecologi-
cal Economics 105: 67-77.
Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Phillips, T., & Bonney, R.
(2007). “Citizen Science as a Tool for Conservation in
Residential Ecosystems.” Ecology and Society 12(2): 11.
http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/ vol12/iss2/art11
Cornwall, M. L. & Campbell, L. M. (2012). “Co-producing
conservation and knowledge: citizen-based sea turtle
monitoring in North Carolina, USA.” Social Studies of
Science 42: 101-120.
Epstein, S. (1995). “The construction of lay expertise: AIDS
activism and the forging of credibility in the reform of
clinical trials.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 20:
408-437.
Irwin, A. (1995). Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise,
and Sustainable Development. New York, NY: Routledge.
Littman, M., & Suomela, T. (2014). “Crowdsourcing, the
great meteor storm of 1833, and the founding of mete-
or science.” Endeavour 38(2): 130-138.
63
3
TEACHING STUDENTS HOW TO
DISCOVER THE UNKNOWN
Robert R. Dunn and Holly L. Menninger
In the early 1400s, at the end of the Middle Ages in
what is now Italy, when knowledge was being reborn,
anatomists would read from an ancient Greek text while
their assistants dissected a human body and pointed out
its parts. If the body looked different from what was writ-
ten in the thousand-year-old text it was seen to be mutant,
deviant, wrong. No matter that the ancient Greek
knowledge was flawed and many of the rather ordinary
observations that were being made would have dramati-
cally improved on what was known. It would take a major
scientific revolution for anatomists to begin to actually
observe and learn from dissections. The idea that more
knowledge could be gained was a breakthrough. Looking
back, it’s shocking how hard it was for early scientists to
figure out obvious things.
Not so long ago, we were reminded of those Italian
anatomists when walking past a classroom in which un-
dergraduates were dissecting cats. Around the world—
but particularly in the United States, where as many as
79% of middle and high school biology teachers report
Dunn & Menninger
64
using dissections in their classes—millions of cats, dogs,
pigs, and other mammals, including thousands and thou-
sands of humans, are dissected in anatomy classes. They
are dissected in order to teach students—including all of
those who will eventually operate on your body—how an
average mammal, amphibian, or other body works.
One can discuss the merits or the morality of having
students perform dissections. We won’t do either, though
we can probably all agree that we owe it to the people and
animals whose bodies are being pulled apart to use them
as effectively as possible. My (Rob’s) grandfather donated
his body to science, for example, because he couldn’t get
into medical school when he was younger and he thought
that in death he might do what he had proven unable to
do in life—put himself to good use in a medical school.
But the medical school in which he ended up probably did
not put his body to good use. How do we know this? Be-
cause the vast majority of medical school cadavers are
used to teach students what is already known rather than
to make new discoveries. The vast majority of cadavers
are used for Middle Age science.
In many college anatomy classes, dead animals are
handed out to students. A teaching assistant, perhaps
overworked, underpaid, or poorly equipped for the role,
discusses how the dissection should be done. Students
perform various forms of butchery. Students label, identi-
fy, or remove the parts of the body on which the teaching
assistant has told them to focus. The students are told, at
least generally, how said body part works. More body
parts are dissected. More knowledge is provided. The
bodies are then thrown away in special trashcans. The
students and instructors alike go home, thinking of job
applications, other classes, a love interest, or happy hour.
The whole process repeats itself with a new group the
next morning. This is funny because it is the way nearly
everyone who has taken a biology class learned anatomy.
Teaching Students How to Discover the Unknown
65
If you took a more advanced anatomy class it was likely
distinguished only by the larger diversity of things into
which you cut.
We don’t mean to minimize the hard work of students
or teaching assistants. What we are criticizing, however, is
that we seem to largely teach anatomy in exactly the same
way that it was being taught at the end of the Middle Ag-
es. Specifically, students look at bodies of animals, but are
not encouraged in any way to make real observations.
Instead, they are instructed to look for what is already
known and then if it does not look quite right, depict it the
way it “should” look. Where differences among bodies are
noted, they are seldom measured. Even when measure-
ments are taken, they are seldom recorded.
Now, you might think we are confusing things. At the
end of the Middle Ages we were ignorant about the body.
Simple measurements could produce new knowledge.
Now we understand the body. Of course, you are right to
note that difference—or you would be, except that we still
don’t understand the bodies of animals very well. The
function of the appendix is under new scrutiny, for exam-
ple, as is the stomach. In fact, when it comes to basic mor-
phology, the sorts of things that can be measured by
students in large classes, we haven’t made much progress
in the last hundred years.
How and why do intestines vary among individuals?
How frequent are different deformations of particular or-
gans? Are there tradeoffs between investment in one or-
gan and in another? How common are rare or poorly
understood mutations in the bodies of cats, pigs, or even
humans? Such mutations are hard to study because of
their rarity, but we dissect so many pigs, cats, and other
animals that even something that occurs in just one in a
million animals turns up somewhere in some class each
year. What else could be studied? There are potential dis-
coveries right beneath students as they look up at their
Dunn & Menninger
66
teaching assistants or teachers, but we are training stu-
dents to ignore them, to see the general story at the ex-
pense of the truth.
It is not only in dissections and anatomy where we still
teach in this antiquated way. Walk into an elementary
school, a middle school, or a high school and you’ll note
that lessons based on demonstration science are the norm
in K-12 education, not the exception. Consider, for in-
stance, the carnation and food coloring experiment, the
bean in the jar, or combining chemicals A and B to pro-
duce puffs of smoke. In fact, demonstration science is so
much the norm that we don’t even call it demonstration
science, we just call it science education.
In our view, this typical approach to science education
is not only out of date—it’s broken. If this seems harsh, it’s
because we mistakenly assume that the world is mostly
known and understood. In truth, much of the world is not
nearly as well understood as we’d like to believe. To take
a simple example, most species on Earth have yet to be
named; until species are discovered, documented, and
named, we can’t really know anything else about them. By
extension, therefore, we know precious little about most
of life. If we are going to train generations of students to
help us understand this unknown life, this unknown
world, we must do better than Middle Ages science edu-
cation. Thanks to teachers, we are starting to.
For the last four years, we have developed Your Wild
Life (yourwildlife.org) as a program that engages the pub-
lic in the study of the biodiversity in their daily lives. We
work in homes, backyards, neighborhoods, museums, and
science centers. We ask the public to do wacky things like
twirl a Q-tip in their belly buttons to collect microbes in-
side their navels; set out cookie crumbs as bait to collect
ants; and take pictures of spirited, leggy crickets hopping
around their basements. These citizen scientists make im-
portant observations and contribute data to authentic sci-
Teaching Students How to Discover the Unknown
67
entific research. And then they go further. We encourage
them (through social media and our blog) to participate in
the whole process of science—analyzing the data, making
novel insights, developing new hypotheses, and collec-
tively determining where we as a public science research
team should take the research next. In this sense, our pro-
jects push the boundaries of typical models assigned to
citizen science projects.
Initially, our work—led by a team of scientists and sci-
ence communicators—was situated squarely within the
domain of informal science education. We sought the par-
ticipation of the public (be they eight or 80 years old, sin-
gle volunteers or entire families) in their free time, outside
of the science classroom. For our earliest projects—Belly
Button Biodiversity and School of Ants, which focused on
documenting the diversity of microbes in our belly but-
tons and ants in our backyards, respectively—we part-
nered with the North Carolina Museum of Natural
Sciences, our state natural history museum, to recruit par-
ticipants and collect data at Museum-sponsored outreach
events.
Over time, as our online presence and the number of
Your Wild Life projects grew, our audience and partici-
pant base expanded widely. For example, for Wild Life of
Our Homes, an investigation of microbial biodiversity on
the surfaces in our homes, we recruited over 1,400 partici-
pating households, representing every American state and
the District of Columbia. We are now a sort of digital mu-
seum of public science ourselves.
It was no surprise, therefore, that some inspired and
persistent teachers, those practitioners of formal science
education, took notice. They reached out to us and in-
quired about lesson plans to accompany our citizen sci-
ence projects. These teachers wanted to abandon the
carnations and the baking soda volcanoes in order to
bring real scientific research to their classrooms. At the
Dunn & Menninger
68
time, we had neither the content nor the expertise for cre-
ating such things.
So we embarked on developing a couple lesson plans
based on Belly Button Biodiversity and School of Ants, but
there was a problem. We didn’t really know how to make
lesson plans that would support the required curriculum
standards and the teachers. In particular, many teachers
weren’t fully comfortable with science, particularly sci-
ence where the answers remained unknown. In other
words, the teachers couldn’t pull together citizen science
lesson plans on their own, and neither could we. We
needed each other and we needed to work together, itera-
tively, to produce lessons in which the goal was not to
reveal what we already know, but instead, create new
knowledge. Because scientists have been largely avoiding
K-12 education for the last five hundred years and teach-
ers have mostly been avoiding science, the rift between
our perspectives and fields was, at times, large. What
seemed easy became both hard and interesting.
We persevered and our early efforts are now available
for download at studentsdiscover.org. A lingering issue
from this exercise was how to scale up our successes from
the first few classrooms. This is the stage at which we
caught a lucky break. A coalition of education researchers
and experts in teacher professional development brought
us in as partners on a large, ambitious project. Wouldn’t it
be great, we collectively thought, to use citizen science as a
means for engaging students across North Carolina and beyond
in authentic research, to create opportunities for middle school
students to make real scientific discoveries?
Our project, “Students Discover: Improving Middle
School STEM Outcomes through Scaling Citizen Science
Projects,” was funded by the National Science Foundation
in 2013 and hit the ground running with its first cohort of
middle school teachers in July, 2014. Rather than apply a
lesson plan framework to pre-existing citizen science pro-
Teaching Students How to Discover the Unknown
69
jects (as so often is the norm), Students Discover tries to
flip the model. We partner early-career scientists with
middle school teachers to co-create citizen science projects
and associated lesson plans aligned to both state and na-
tional standards. We aim to bring real research—by which
we mean novel and authentic question-driven research—
to each participating classroom. We envision teachers and
students transforming from observers and recorders to
research collaborators and co-investigators, studying the
ecology and evolution of species in our daily lives.
In its first year, the Students Discover scientist-teacher
teams co-created projects that studied the tiny mites that
live on our faces, the beneficial soil microbes that help a
common weed thrive, fossilized shark teeth in ancient
ocean deposits, and mammal diversity in urban habitats.
In the second year, projects were added on backyard ants
and their pathogens. In addition, we began to develop
lesson plans for one hundred additional citizen science
projects, with the goal of providing teachers access to as
many projects as possible. These projects are now being
implemented in classrooms across North Carolina, and
the first pieces of student-generated data and discovery
are rolling in.
The act of co-creation is time-consuming, labor-
intensive, and messy, much like the process of science it-
self. Yet we think the payoffs, if we can achieve them—
deep changes in teacher knowledge and instructional
practice, increased student engagement in science learn-
ing, and improved science achievement—will be totally
worth it. We will not stop working until real science—
investigations where the answers are neither known nor
predetermined—becomes the norm in the middle school
science classroom.
And as for the dissections? We aren’t quite there yet,
but we have an idea of what could be done. We would
have students take real measurements along with high-
Dunn & Menninger
70
resolution digital images of the animals, including hu-
mans, that they dissect. They would also take a tissue
sample of each animal (this might need to occur before the
animals were preserved, which would be harder, but pos-
sible). The images and measurements would be sent to a
database where they could be compared with other sam-
ples of the same species, and the tissue would be shipped
to a tissue bank. With the database, anyone could com-
pare the features of animals to understand how much they
vary. With the tissue bank, the genes associated with unu-
sual features could be identified.
Citizen science has the potential to transform the class-
room experience, shifting students from passively receiv-
ing knowledge to being active partners in a process of
learning and discovery. With every moment in class, the
students conducting dissections would be reminded that
the body they are looking at is, like their own body, still
imperfectly understood. This revelation—of the incom-
pleteness of knowledge, and the role of students and
teachers alike in advancing knowledge—took until the
late Renaissance to discover. It is a discovery we would do
well to build on as we consider how our own science and
education might, together, be reborn.
Further Reading
Barberán, A., Dunn, R. R., Reich, B. J., Pacifici, K., Laber, E.
B., Menninger, H. L., Morton, J. M., Henley, J. B., Leff,
J. W., Miller, S. L., & Fierer, N. (2015). “The ecology of
microscopic life in household dust.” Proceedings of Roy-
al Society B 282(1814): DOI 10.1098/rspb.2015.1139.
Beasley, D. E., Koltz, A. M., Lambert, J. E., Fierer, N., &
Dunn, R. R. (2015). “The evolution of stomach acidity
and its relevance to the human microbiome.” PLoS
ONE 10(7): e0134116. DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.
0134116
Teaching Students How to Discover the Unknown
71
Bollinger, R. R., Barbas, A. S., Bush, E. L., Lin, S. S., & Par-
ker, W. (2007). “Biofilms in the large bowel suggest an
apparent function of the human vermiform appendix.”
Journal of Theoretical Biology 249(4): 826-831.
Bonney, R., Ballard, H., Jordan, R., McCallie, E., Phillips,
T., Shirk, J., & Wilderman, C. C. (2009). Public Participa-
tion in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing
Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE In-
quiry Group Report. Washington, DC: Center for Ad-
vancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).
Dunn, R. (2015). The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True
Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery. New York, NY:
Little, Brown.
Elizondo-Omaña, R. E., Guzmán-López, S., & De Los An-
geles García-Rodríguez, M. (2005). “Dissection as a
teaching tool: Past, present, and future.” The Anatomical
Record 285B: 11-15. DOI 10.1002/ar.b.20070
King, L. A., Ross, C. L., Stephens, M. L., & Rowan, A. N.
(2004). “Biology teachers’ attitudes to dissection and al-
ternatives.” Alternatives to Laboratory Animals 32(1):
475-484.
Oakley, J. (2012). “Science teachers and the dissection de-
bate: Perspectives on animal dissection and alterna-
tives.” International Journal of Environmental & Science
Education 7(2): 253-267.
PART TWO
75
4
WHEN CITIZEN SCIENCE MAKES THE
NEWS
Lily Bui
Broadcasting, believe it or not, comes from farming.
In modern vernacular, “to broadcast” means to trans-
mit information by TV or radio, but the verb’s original
definition meant “to scatter [seeds] by hand or machine
rather than placing in drills or rows.” It may come as a
surprise to you that broadcasting has just as much to do
with farming and media as it has to do with citizen sci-
ence.
In 1792, Robert B. Thomas started the Old Farmers’ Al-
manac, a periodical circulated widely and regularly to
farmers. Still in publication today, the Almanac serves two
important purposes. First, it acts as an objective reference
for weather and astronomical predictions, sourcing its
observations from the farming community. Second, it fa-
cilitates a space where the community can share advice,
anecdotes, recipes, and more with each other. But what
does this have to do with citizen science?
If you’ve made it this far into the book, you have prob-
ably formed an impression of what citizen science is. For
the purposes of this chapter, we’ll think of citizen science
Bui
76
as public involvement in inquiry, discovery, and construc-
tion of scientific knowledge, typically in the form of data
collection, classification, or documentation.
Conceptually, the Almanac is not far from how some
citizen science efforts are built: it incorporates public
knowledge into a larger corpus of information predicated
on a scientific question. Also, the Almanac illustrates an-
other important concept—that citizen science does not
happen in a vacuum. Citizen science inherently cultivates
community, and we can conjecture from the Almanac that
communities often need a means of communicating with
themselves and with each other. And that, dear reader, is
where media comes in.
The Role of Media in Citizen Science
When I say “media,” I’m referring to processes that fa-
cilitate the documentation, reporting, or construction of
information. In this chapter, I’ll use examples of “mass
media” (TV, radio, major news outlets) and what I’ll call
“micromedia” (blogs, social media, etc.) in both digital
and non-digital contexts. You’ll see quickly, however, that
the lines between both distinctions blur very quickly and
very easily.
But before we dive into the purpose of media in citizen
science, it’s important first to discuss the purpose of me-
dia in science proper. When I first set out to do research
for writing this chapter, my literature scan for publica-
tions about “purpose” and “media” and “science” ren-
dered results about journalism and public relations. This
seems like the perfect locus at which to begin our conver-
sation.
In Journalism, Science, and Society, editors Martin W.
Bauer and Massimiano Buchi bring together voices that
provide a critical view of science and media. As one of
When Citizen Science Makes the News
77
those voices, Tim Radford, the former science editor of the
Guardian, identifies “a crucial tension in the focus of the
mass media—particularly papers—on seeking a good nar-
rative rather than seeking to advance public education as
scientists sometimes seem to expect.” In a separate chap-
ter, Claudio Pantarotto and Armanda Jori describe their
conversation with a biomedical company in which the
interviewee describes the company’s view on media:
“Communication has two strategic purposes: firstly, to
attract donations [...] secondly, to maintain the image and
reputation of the institute.”
These views beg excruciatingly essential questions: Is
science journalism, in effect, PR for science and scientists,
or is there a distinction between the two? If so, where is
the distinction? What—if anything—is the responsibility
of media in terms of public education and understanding
of science? How can media add value to the way the pub-
lic discovers, accesses, and consumes scientific infor-
mation?
The answers to these questions depend largely on how
you look at the role of media itself, which requires peeling
back an additional layer. Media theorist James W. Carey
presents two different models of communication that
might be useful in helping us think through this. One is a
“transmission model,” in which one party imparts infor-
mation to another, like in traditional broadcast TV and
radio. (This is also a typically unidirectional relationship
between media and people.) The other is a “ritualistic
model,” which is defined by things like sharing, participa-
tion, association, and fellowship. Based on what we know
about citizen science and its collaborative involvement of
the public, Carey’s ritualistic view of communication
seems to lay along the line of best fit.
While traditional media relies on transmission (e.g., a
large newspaper prints a cover story and distributes it to
the masses), I propose that citizen science media could
Bui
78
and should shift toward the ritualistic model (e.g., many
disparate sources collaboratively construct the universe of
citizen science media) to raise public awareness about sci-
ence; induct participants in citizen science projects; and
close the feedback loop between the public, scientists, and
media outlets.
The Current Citizen Science Mediascape
In very broad terms, there are several forms of “media
about citizen science” that have crystallized in recent
years:
Media reporting on citizen science as a field/practice;
Citizen scientists producing media about their partici-
pation in projects; and
Scientists and researchers writing about citizen science
(both within and outside of academic publishing).
The largest volume of citizen science media content likely
resides in the latter two categories. Let’s begin, however,
with the first, which is essentially mass media’s modus
operandi.
Mass Media
At the time of writing this, you can count on one hand
the number of mainstream media outlets that regularly
produce content about citizen science: National Geograph-
ic’s Citizen Science Education initiatives, Discover Maga-
zine’s Citizen Science Salon, and Scientific American’s
Citizen Science blog.
These publications play important roles in raising
awareness about citizen science. Articles and blog posts
capture opportunities to participate in projects, research
findings and results, and interviews with project manag-
ers and scientists. Some publications are restricted to one
When Citizen Science Makes the News
79
channel of delivery (either print or online), whereas oth-
ers, like Discover Magazine’s Citizen Science Salon (a
SciStarter project), are cross-platform, spanning both print
and digital.
The important thing to note, though, is that in most
cases, mass media outlets are reporting on citizen science
and transmitting information one way. Although it is pos-
sible for audiences to give feedback in the form of online
comments or writing to the editors, the nodes in this mod-
el rarely extend beyond the reader and the media outlet
itself. Then participating in the citizen science projects that
these media report on usually requires navigating away to
that particular project page, a process that is disconnected
from the medium through which the original story was
received.
Figure 1: Traditional Model of Science Media
Bui
80
As yet, there is no such thing as a regular citizen sci-
ence segment on television (in news or any other genre).
Radio may be ahead of the curve, though, which I’ll dis-
cuss in a separate section ahead.
Micromedia
Meanwhile, there has been an emergence of citizen sci-
ence micromedia produced by non-professionals for
smaller audiences. This mostly occurs online on blogging
and social media platforms, and stems from a trend in the
broader science journalism community, which strives to
fuse a more direct and effective connection between scien-
tists and the public.
In the blogosphere, sites like SciStarter and the Public
Library of Science’s (PLOS) CitizenSci blog produce regu-
lar stories about citizen science research, often authored
by scientists, citizen scientists, educators, policy research-
ers, and others. SciStarter links readers directly to projects,
which are organized in its database of hundreds of citizen
science projects. The site also connects projects and project
managers directly to media through various media part-
nerships. PLOS CitizenSci connects readers to citizen sci-
ence projects and science papers. On PLOS CitizenSci,
Caren Cooper, the Assistant Director of the Biodiversity
Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural
Sciences and former Cornell Ornithology Lab researcher,
writes the “CitizenSci Scoop,” a weekly blog series that
highlights a host of topics in citizen science history and
research.
Some citizen science platforms provide a forum in
which participants convene and discuss projects. The ex-
changes in these forums can also be seen as a production
of media or documentation. For example, the Zooniverse
citizen science platform hosts a plethora of citizen science
projects for fields spanning astronomy to climatology to
archaeology. Each project has its own Talk site, where par-
When Citizen Science Makes the News
81
ticipants can talk to both each other and to scientists lead-
ing the projects, in case anyone needs clarification on how
a project is running.
Public Lab, an open-source science community that fo-
cuses on the development of low-cost and low-tech sensor
tools, encourages members of its community to contribute
research notes to the Wiki-based site to document devel-
opment, testing, and ideation efforts. The research notes
are a cross between a blog post and scientific paper, which
other members of the Public Lab community can com-
ment on, share, etc. The notes can also be posted by any-
one and everyone in the community.
Media also get produced for citizen science projects.
#SnowTweets, a citizen science project that focuses on
cryosphere research, asks citizen scientists to tweet obser-
vations of snowfall (even if there is zero snowfall). Their
team then scrapes Twitter for these observations and uses
the data for analysis. Project NOAH and iNaturalist are
nature observation citizen science projects that invite par-
ticipants to submit photographs of species sightings to
their website.
Although no single source of micromedia reaches as
many people as mass media can reach at a given time, the
aggregate of all citizen science micromedia provides a
more robust and representative view of what is actually
happening within citizen science. Stakeholders should
foster a multi-pronged approach to constructing the citi-
zen science media discourse, and one camp that is accom-
plishing this very well is public media.
“Public media,” as opposed to commercial media, re-
fers to any media disseminated by or supported by a pub-
lic broadcasting station or entity (e.g., PBS, NPR, BBC,
etc.). Before I proceed, let’s get one thing straight: I am an
unabashed public media nerd. You also know by now that
I am an advocate for citizen science. Despite my embed-
Bui
82
ded biases, however, the convergence of these two worlds
speaks to a much larger narrative—that of citizen science
as a form of public participation in science and public me-
dia as a forum for public discourse.
Figure 2: Proposed Model for Citizen Science Media
Public Media, Public Science
Here are some basic reasons why collaborations be-
tween citizen science and public media might be success-
ful and even flourish:
Shared mission. Public media is a mission-driven indus-
try with its roots in public education and pedagogy,
which aligns with the many citizen science projects
that offer educational value by design. Both public
When Citizen Science Makes the News
83
media and citizen science also seek to raise awareness
about relevant issues and to engage people beyond
consuming information alone.
National and local interests. Citizen science projects can
illuminate very local issues (e.g., a dwindling frog
population in southern Illinois) as well as national is-
sues (e.g., climate change), while providing a means to
engage with these problems. Public media often covers
national and local issues, which can be aligned with
relevant citizen science projects that advance a related
field of research.
Infrastructure. Public media already has the infrastruc-
ture for disseminating content on air and online. Its or-
ganizing principle is also to create symbolic and
material communities around public media content.
Most citizen science projects constantly seek more par-
ticipants and opportunities to build communities
around citizen science.
Volunteerism. The heart of citizen science is the spirit of
volunteerism, and many public media stations operate
with the same credo. A citizen science project cannot
be successful without volunteers to help collect data,
and many public media stations rely on their volunteer
networks to run events, promote programming, and in
some cases even create content.
Believe it or not, public media and citizen science have
already met and hung out, with many case studies un-
derway (and an alphabet soup of station call signs to
boot).
WHYY’s The Pulse
Every few weeks, through a partnership between
WHYY and SciStarter, producer Kimberly Haas features a
citizen science project with some kind of connection in the
Philadelphia area, the radio station’s broadcast region. She
Bui
84
interviews project managers, volunteers, and researchers
about their work and encourages listeners to participate in
the projects as long as the projects are active. These stories
match with seasonal considerations. For example, a previ-
ous winter segment featured a citizen project called Tiny
Terrors, which focuses on identifying the invasive woody
adelgid. The story was framed by the context of winter in
the Northeast, where the types of trees susceptible to the
woody adelgid grow. The Pulse also runs stories on many
other types of citizen science stories.
KVNF’s iSeeChange
ISeeChange is a citizen science project and public radio
experiment that ties citizen observations of weather di-
rectly into media. Participants submit weather observa-
tions in the form of photos, video, or tweets, which can be
incorporated into news stories about climate change. This
model opens up the newsroom and brings both public
radio listeners and citizen scientists into the data-
gathering and storytelling process.
WNYC’s Cicada Tracker & Clock Your Sleep
The WNYC data news team ran two citizen science ex-
periments involving sensor-generated data. The first, Ci-
cada Tracker, involved having public radio listeners build
an Arduino-based soil temperature sensor and submitting
regular readings to the WNYC team via a simple app. The
goal was to see whether there was a correlation between
increases in soil temperature and the frequency of cicada
sightings (there was). As people submitted their sensor
readings, the data news team mapped the data points on a
CartoDB map and also blogged about the process along
the way. Similarly, the Clock Your Sleep project involved
people with JawBone wearable sensors tracking their
sleep patterns and self-reporting their sleeping patterns
When Citizen Science Makes the News
85
through a smartphone app. The data were collected, ana-
lyzed, visualized, and reported on via the WNYC website.
WCVE’s Science Matters
WCVE Idea Stations has used their platform to connect
their audiences to citizen science. They have featured reg-
ular blog posts, audio, video, and even live events that
bring people to citizen science opportunities like Frog-
WatchUSA, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and Cicada
Watch.
Science Friday
The educational arm of Science Friday seeks ways to re-
purpose existing radio content for education and the gen-
eral public. SciFri has featured citizen science projects on
its education page in the past and enlisted its audience to
participate. Their latest project engages online listeners to
tweet observations about the world using the #Ob-
serveEverything hashtag, appealing to a historical tradi-
tion of observation-based science, which citizen science
draws upon often.
PBS’s NOVA Labs
NOVA Science is known for producing science docu-
mentaries for public broadcasting. Recently, they
launched an initiative called NOVA Labs, which are citi-
zen science projects hosted on the NOVA website. The
various labs that citizen scientists can participate in span
fields like solar energy, molecular engineering, cybersecu-
rity, and more. In tandem with the companion educators’
material (videos, interactive documentaries, and other
content) already available through the site, NOVA Labs is
meant to be a resource for educators, students, research-
ers, and citizen scientists alike.
Bui
86
In these examples, we see the potential to create more
of a dialogue between news outlets and the public when it
comes to scientific inquiry and investigation. Needless to
say, I hope that public media does more with citizen sci-
ence, and I hope that citizen science does more with pub-
lic media, as there is great potential for mutual benefit in
these collaborations.
The Big Picture
Because citizen science is still in its infancy, so too is
citizen science media. However, a survey of the current
mediascape shows that there are emergent trends and op-
portunities for experimentation as both the field and the
subsequent coverage of the field grow. As media makers
and communicators create the architecture for this space,
it might be useful to think about how to design citizen
science media with three important dimensions in mind:
awareness, engagement, and impact.
Awareness: discovering, learning. How can citizen science
media help raise awareness about local and national
scientific discourse? How can citizen scientists them-
selves, as well as other stakeholders, be part of this
process?
Engagement: understanding, knowing, sharing. What are
ways that citizen science media can link people to op-
portunities to engage with news and citizen science
projects? Who else can the media engage beyond the
current pool of participants, and around what causes
or issues?
Impact: doing, changing. What are the things that citizen
science hopes to change in terms of public understand-
ing of science, educational approaches, policy, etc., and
how can media facilitate these efforts? How do we
measure these changes, even design for them at the
When Citizen Science Makes the News
87
front end of media campaigns and citizen science ef-
forts?
Media is, famously, the first rough draft of history.”
And because the emergent “ritual” model for citizen sci-
ence media allows anyone to produce media about citizen
science, the potential authorship of citizen science history
is distributed more broadly than ever. As it stands, citizen
science media and culture truly are what we actively and
collaboratively make it.
Further Reading
Barrett, D. & Leddy, S. (2008). “Assessing Creative Me-
dia’s Social Impact.” White paper, The Fledgling Fund.
Bauer, M. W. & Buchi, M., eds. (2007). Journalism, Science
and Society: Science Communication between News and
Public Relations. New York, NY: Routledge.
Brumfiel, G. (2009). “Science journalism: Supplanting the
old media?” Nature 458: 274-277.
Carey, J. W. (1989). “A Cultural Approach to Communica-
tion.” In Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and
Society. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.
Lewis, C. & Niles, H. (2013). “Measuring Impact: The Art,
Science, and Mystery of Nonprofit News.” Washing-
ton, DC: American University School of Education.
Lowe, G. F. & Martin, F., eds. (2013). The Value of Public
Service Media. RIPE@2013. Goteberg, Sweden: Nor-
dicom.
Walsh, L. (2010). “The Common Topoi of STEM Dis-
course: An Apologia and Methodological Proposal,
With Pilot Survey.” SAGE Publications.
89
5
SOCIAL MOVEMENT-BASED CITIZEN
SCIENCE
Gwen Ottinger
On October 30, 2014, a coalition of environmental and
community groups released a report entitled Warning
Signs: Toxic Air Pollution at Oil and Gas Development Sites.
Warning Signs reported on air sampling conducted by res-
idents of communities in six states affected by hydraulic
fracturing (fracking) and natural gas production activities.
It integrated technical details of monitoring protocols and
sampling results with first-hand accounts of the impacts
of fracking on communities, resulting in an argument for
expanded air monitoring by environmental regulatory
agencies, full disclosure by natural gas companies of the
chemicals used in natural gas production, and a “precau-
tionary approach” to regulating the industry. The report
was released on the same day that a peer-reviewed article
about the study appeared in the journal Environmental
Health. While the journal article did not include communi-
ty voices directly, it defended the value of community-
based monitoring and recommended including residents’
participation in expanded government monitoring pro-
grams.
Ottinger
90
The well publicized, multi-community study is an ex-
ample, on a grand scale, of one of two major variants of
citizen science, described by Caren Cooper and Bruce
Lewenstein as “democratic,” in that it “address[es] the
needs and concerns of citizens” and is “developed and
enacted by citizens themselves” (p. 54). In contrast to
Cooper and Lewenstein, this chapter argues that efforts
like Warning Signs and AIDS treatment activists’ work to
change protocols for clinical trials are better characterized
by their connections with larger political projects under-
taken by what are known as “social movements.” Social
movements mobilize large numbers of people and organi-
zations to raise an issue to prominence, change the way
we think about it, and affect policy on the issue. In social
movement-based citizen science, activist groups design
studies not only to improve knowledge but to foster col-
lective action and political change. Growing out of the
environmental justice movement, the Warning Signs study
brought together far-flung communities affected by un-
conventional oil and gas production to document the ex-
tent of the effects, highlight the government agencies’
inattention to the problems, and further calls for stricter
regulatory oversight.
Although few social movement-based citizen science
projects are as extensive as the Warning Signs study, it
nonetheless exemplifies several defining characteristics of
this form of citizen science:
Research questions grow directly out of the questions
and concerns of citizen scientists;
Credentialed scientists participate as allies, providing
resources and advice without driving the research;
Activists use innovative methods, including “do-it-
yourself” (DIY) instruments;
Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
91
Questions and methods implicitly or explicitly chal-
lenge the adequacy of standard scientific approaches;
and, as a result,
Social movement groups engaged in citizen science
face tradeoffs between scientific legitimacy and politi-
cal efficacy.
Because social movement-based citizen science is by
definition political, it is often discounted or dismissed by
scientists concerned that it is not sufficiently objective to
make a reliable contribution to scientific knowledge; poli-
cymakers, similarly, may believe that it is not rigorous
enough to be responsibly used to inform policy. But its
politics should not disqualify it as a contribution to sci-
ence or policy. On the contrary, given that value judg-
ments are inevitable in all scientific investigations, the
explicitly political nature of citizen science grounded in
social movements suggests ways that all forms of citizen
science—and science in general—could become more ro-
bust by being more transparent and more deliberate about
their own values. Furthermore, by diversifying the values
that inform scientific inquiry, social movement-based citi-
zen science can help scientists identify fruitful new meth-
ods and avenues of investigation.
Research Questions Are Community Questions
The first-hand accounts featured in Warning Signs
make it clear that the health effects of natural gas produc-
tion are of particular concern to nearby communities. In
testimony after testimony, residents not only describe the
symptoms they have experienced, they posit a connection
between ill health and chemical smells. Caitlin Kennedy of
Clark, Wyoming, for example, describes her experience:
“It smelled like someone had turned a stove on without
the pilot light on. I immediately got a headache, my nose
Ottinger
92
started burning and I felt lightheaded.” Similarly, in Pavil-
lion, Wyoming, John Fenton reports “feeling tightness in
my chest, nausea, throat irritation,” and a number of other
symptoms after being “overcome by a sickly sweet odor
and an acid-like metallic taste.”
Accordingly, the study is designed to probe the hy-
pothesized connection between exposure to chemicals
from natural gas production and illness. Its two research
questions, “Are community members, workers, and ani-
mals being exposed to harmful airborne chemicals from
fracking and other production activities?” and “Do the
known health effects of those chemicals give cause for
concern?” seek first to establish the presence in communi-
ties like Clark and Pavillion of chemicals that could cause
illness, and then to connect them to potential health ef-
fects. The study’s methods are also closely tied to the way
that residents experience pollution: air samples were tak-
en in places where community members had consistently
noticed chemical smells or experienced health effects.
The defining role that citizen scientists’ questions play
in the Warning Signs study makes the project typical of
social movement-based citizen science more generally.
Their questions, moreover, are not motivated by curiosity
alone; rather, they arise from local experiences that sug-
gest a larger problem. In his study of a community-
initiated health study in Woburn, Massachusetts—a
common type of social movement-based citizen science
known as “popular epidemiology”—sociologist Phil
Brown describes the process of creating such projects as
starting when individuals begin to notice both pollutants
and health effects in their community; it continues with
their hypothesizing a connection between the two and
setting out to probe that connection.
Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
93
Scientists Are Allies
Although citizen scientists define the research ques-
tions based on their experiences and observations, creden-
tialed scientists still participate in social movement-based
projects. The environmental groups leading the Warning
Signs study recruited scientists to the project early on, ask-
ing them to review the monitoring protocol and help in-
terpret data. The participation of scientists was also
crucial in getting the study accepted to a peer-reviewed
journal, although community leaders also routinely call on
scientists even when they do not aspire to produce an ac-
ademic publication. In Louisiana, communities that use
bucket air samplers in their local campaigns, for example,
ask local chemist Wilma Subra to put sample results in the
context of reported releases from nearby petrochemical
facilities.
Credentialed scientists play two important roles in so-
cial movement-based citizen science. First, they can im-
prove study design, by helping citizen scientists make
sure the methods that they’ve chosen are well suited to
the questions they want to answer. In the Warning Signs
study, the research team knew that they wanted to test air
quality near compressor stations and had imagined using
bucket air samplers to do so. Allied scientists, however,
suggested that they would need a different instrument to
measure the pollution they were interested in, so the
study was modified to include monitoring with formalde-
hyde badges at those sites.
Scientists’ involvement can also increase the legitimacy
of science produced by activist groups. It can facilitate
publication in peer-reviewed journals and coordination
with regulatory standards, both widely accepted markers
of scientific credibility. As spokespeople for social move-
ment-based projects, scientists help increase the likelihood
that decision makers will take citizen scientists’ results
seriously, by presenting the results from an authoritative,
Ottinger
94
external perspective (a process that sociologist Abby Kin-
chy calls the “epistemic boomerang”) and framing them in
the technocratic language used in regulatory proceedings.
When choosing scientists to work with, community
leaders are careful to find scientists supportive of their
goals and methods. Warning Signs researchers, for exam-
ple, looked for experts who not only could offer expertise
on oil and gas production but also would acknowledge
that community members themselves were well posi-
tioned to identify sampling sites and collect air samples.
The “expert-activists” who participate face the challenge
of protecting their scientific credibility while at the same
time helping social movement groups achieve their politi-
cal goals; in his research, sociologist Scott Frickel shows
how they do so by forming under-the-radar networks of
like-minded colleagues, which he calls “shadow mobiliza-
tions.”
Methods May Be “Hacked”
The Warning Signs study reported on results from air
monitoring conducted with “bucket” air samplers. The
buckets are a kind of “grab sampler”: they pull a volume
of air into a container that is then sent off to a laboratory
for analysis. Most grab sampling is done using a device
called a Summa canister. Summa canisters are stainless
steel spheres with a glass lining; they come from the lab
already evacuated, and the entire device has to be sent
back to the lab every time a sample is taken. Buckets, in
contrast, house a bag made of special, nonreactive plastic
called Tedlar in an ordinary paint bucket. Scientific-grade
tubing is used to connect a miniature vacuum cleaner,
available in consumer electronics stores, which evacuates
the bucket and allows air to flow into the bucket. Once a
sample has been taken, only the Tedlar bag has to be sent
Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
95
to the lab; the rest of the device remains in the community
and can continue to be used.
Buckets are just one example of a scientific instrument
used by citizen scientists to replace a standard scientific
method or instrument with one that is more accessible to
ordinary people. Since 2010, many other such instruments
and techniques have been developed by members of an
organization called Public Lab. Their website (pub-
liclab.org) offers tools for measuring water quality, sens-
ing chemicals in indoor air, and creating aerial maps of
areas affected by pollution or natural disasters, to name
few.
These DIY monitoring techniques share a number of
characteristics. First, they are tailored to the questions of
citizen scientists. The bucket’s design, for example, is op-
timized for community concerns about very strong odors
from petrochemical facilities that might last under an
hour, but that might occur several days in a row. Buckets
accordingly have a sampling period of several minutes—
long enough not to miss the smell if the wind shifted for a
moment, but short enough not to dilute the worst smells
with cleaner air. The easily replaceable Tedlar bag allows
them to always be at the ready in the community, instead
of being unavailable while a sample is being analyzed, as
Summa canisters are.
The level of precision offered by DIY monitors is also
dictated by the questions and interests of users. Very
small concentrations of air toxins can be harmful to hu-
man health; as a result, bucket samples are analyzed using
a technique that can measure those chemicals at the parts
per billion (ppb) level. In contrast, an indoor air monitor
developed by Public Lab doesn’t take numerical readings
at all. Instead, it roams around a room, changing color
when chemicals are detected, allowing users to locate the
source(s) of hazardous chemicals in their homes.
Ottinger
96
DIY instruments tend to be built by users. In bucket
trainings, community members build buckets together, in
addition to learning how to use them. Public Lab posts
parts lists and instructions on its website for the instru-
ments developed by members. Because of the hands-on
nature of these devices, innovations and improvements
also come from users. Buckets no longer use actual buck-
ets to house their sampling bag; instead, they use similarly
sized clear plastic storage containers commonly used for
bulk foods, a user-inspired modification that solves a
number of problems posed by the original design. This
kind of modification is actively encouraged by Public
Lab’s “open source” ethic, in which creators of a technol-
ogy don’t claim intellectual property rights but instead
make their creation freely available to others to use, modi-
fy, and distribute. Because they are constructed with read-
ily available parts and common household items, these
instruments also tend to be much less expensive than their
standard scientific counterparts: buckets cost under $100
to build, whereas Summa canisters cost $500 or more to
buy.
Scientific Critiques Are Central
Alternative instruments and methods should not be
seen as merely science on the cheap. Rather, they enable
another fundamental aspect of social movement-based
citizen science, that of critiquing the way that science is
ordinarily done and changing standard practices. Partici-
pants in the Warning Signs study took air samples near
fracking sites to call out scientists for their neglect of the
air quality impact of fracking in places where people live
and where children go to school. This criticism—that the
effects of petrochemical pollution on neighboring com-
munities are systematically neglected—is routinely lev-
eled at regulatory agencies by bucket users around the
world, with the effect that, nearly 20 years after buckets
Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
97
were first developed, federal regulation now requires
fenceline monitoring at all U.S. oil refineries.
But citizen scientists don’t only want to push scientists
into doing research that is being left undone; they also
advocate for changes in scientific methods and standards
of evidence. In his work, the environmental health re-
searcher Phil Brown explains how popular epidemiology
challenges the ways that professional public health re-
searchers decide whether there is enough evidence to con-
clude that an environmental hazard is affecting people’s
health. The public health standard is to prefer false nega-
tives over false positives—that is, they choose to err on the
side of saying there is no problem when there is, rather
than take the risk of declaring that there is a problem
when there actually isn’t. They insist on a very high level
of statistical significance; they want to be 95% sure that
any elevated rates of disease that show up could not have
occurred randomly. Popular epidemiologists, in contrast,
argue that they should not have to meet these strict stand-
ards before the government will intervene to protect their
health, and they push for a more precautionary approach
with a lower bar for statistical significance.
Bucket users also challenge scientific standards for es-
tablishing what constitutes an environmental health prob-
lem. Environmental regulators take air samples over a 24-
hour period and compare them to health-based standards
set by the government for air quality, sometimes averag-
ing a whole year’s worth of samples to compare to an an-
nual average. Bucket users, working with individual 5-
minute samples, focus their analyses on chemicals fre-
quently detected by buckets and compare them directly to
whatever standards are available, whether they are for 8-
hour, 24-hour, or annual averages. In doing so, they high-
light the absence of any standards for some chemicals
known to affect human health; they point out the enor-
mous uncertainties in the standards, which can differ by
Ottinger
98
as much as ten or even 100 times from one set of agency
guidelines to another; and they assert that relatively short-
term exposures, not just long-term average exposures, can
directly impact people’s health.
Scientific Legitimacy Traded for Political Efficacy?
Despite their critique of standard scientific methods,
the citizen scientists involved in the Warning Signs study
made several moves to establish their scientific legitimacy.
They partnered with credentialed scientists and they pub-
lished their findings in a peer-reviewed journal as well as
in an activist report. Furthermore, the article and report
argue for the legitimacy of sampling results by drawing
on the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA): both refer to the EPA federal reference
methods used to analyze samples, and the report de-
scribes how the sampling followed “stringent quality con-
trol protocols originally designed with EPA Region 9.”
Establishing scientific legitimacy is important for citi-
zen science to actually help bring about the changes that
social activists seek. Bucket results are taken seriously by
regulators, at least to a limited extent, because air samples
are analyzed in certified labs, using a method established
by the EPA. As a result, bucket samples showing very
high levels of chemicals can lead regulators to look for the
source of those elevated levels and compel facilities to
clean them up. Similarly, Shannon Dosemagen and other
founders of Public Lab report in an article that the partici-
patory mapping practices it helped foster in disaster-
affected communities were of great interest to internation-
al development agencies. These agencies use maps to
guide and organize their own, top-down activities, and
the agencies’ interest in geospatial data lent legitimacy to
community-generated maps.
Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
99
Scientific legitimacy, however, may come at a cost:
where social movement-based citizen scientists align
themselves with expert practices for the sake of scientific
legitimacy, their critiques of standard scientific practices
are apt to get lost. International development agencies
insisted that Public Lab condense their work with com-
munities into very short time periods, attempting to im-
pose a standard view of mapping as a straightforward
technical procedure—undermining the organization’s
goal of fostering a deeply participatory practice that could
represent locals’ place-based knowledge. And bucket us-
ers’ desire to see regulators act on air quality data that
they collect has led them to push for more and more real-
time air monitoring, which offers the possibility to gener-
ate long-term averages—and the potential for scientists to
ignore the episodic peaks of pollution that buckets meas-
ure.
In conducting citizen science, then, social movement
groups must constantly make tradeoffs between increas-
ing the scientific authority of their claims and amplifying
their critiques of science as it is usually practiced. In her
book, Abby Kinchy shows the consequences of this
tradeoff very clearly in discussing two different communi-
ty-led approaches to showing that genetically modified
maize was finding its way into supposedly unmodified
maize through cross-pollination, contrary to seed compa-
ny scientists’ arguments that it would not happen. One of
the groups focused on genetic changes in the seeds, in
keeping with well-established science, which holds that it
is in the genes that any unintentional cross-breeding will
be visible. The other extended their investigations to look
at mutations in the plants themselves, taking seriously
locals’ implicit hypothesis that genetic cross-
contamination would be visible in the crop, but sacrificing
their credibility with scientists.
Ottinger
100
Politics Don’t Detract from Contributions to Science
Because social movement-based citizen science pro-
duces knowledge with an explicit goal of creating social
change, critics charge it with “bias.” Even those who
might be sympathetic to citizen scientists’ causes are
tempted to regard their data gathering activities as politi-
cal, not scientific, endeavors. This view draws on the
widely held but erroneous belief that scientific investiga-
tions led by credentialed scientists are free of social val-
ues—except in anomalous cases involving corrupt
scientists.
In reality, no science is devoid of social values. Even
scientists who are scrupulously observing the standards in
their field and taking every precaution to ensure that their
personal desires or prejudices do not color their research
must still make numerous decisions about how to do their
work. What questions should they investigate? What
terms and metaphors should they use to talk about their
findings? Should they err on the side of seeing something
that isn’t there, or missing something that is? As philoso-
pher Kevin Elliot shows, values necessarily enter into all
of these decisions. Scientists should not be expected to
eradicate values from their research, although they should
of course be prohibited from manipulating data to suit
their political purposes. Instead, both Elliot and fellow
philosopher Heather Douglas believe that science would
be strengthened if scientists were to be more reflective and
transparent about their values. Doing so, they suggest,
would permit a more productive societal conversation
about the limitations of our knowledge, the implicit biases
that we might want to correct, and the alternative ways of
looking at things that might be more in keeping with our
shared values.
Viewed in this light, the explicitly political nature of
social movement-based projects can actually help make
science more robust and more responsive to social needs.
Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
101
Unlike mainstream scientists, activists are transparent
about the values that inform their scientific activities. And
in their critiques of standard scientific practice, they call
attention to implicit value judgments being made by sci-
entists that might not seem appropriate when viewed
from other perspectives. The high level of statistical signif-
icance that epidemiologists insist on, for example, could
well be deemed unreasonable by a society that thought it
right to err on the side of caution when it came to protect-
ing people’s health.
Of course, just as there are cases where credentialed
scientists manipulate data to prove a point in which they
are personally or politically invested, there may be in-
stances in which social movement-based citizen scientists
manipulate data to serve their interests—and such behav-
ior is just as unacceptable in social movement-based citi-
zen science as it is in mainstream science. But it is also just
as anomalous. The political agendas of social movement
groups do not make them any more susceptible to corrup-
tion; if anything, citizen scientists who want to challenge
accepted approaches are likely to be even more committed
to making sure their methods are beyond reproach.
Responsibly conducted, the science conducted by ac-
tivist groups can make a contribution to scientific
knowledge writ large, not only by helping to amass data
that credentialed scientists do not or could not collect. It
can also diversify the values that inform scientific research
and prompt discussions of what values ought to be in-
forming scientific practice. By doing so, this kind of citizen
science could help to identify new and fruitful areas of
inquiry, and approaches to pursuing them that have the
potential to be of greater benefit to society.
Ottinger
102
Summary
Social movement-based citizen science is characterized
by a number of features that distinguish it from citizen
science in which citizens participate in the research pro-
jects of academic scientists. It starts from citizen scientists’
questions and hypotheses, with credentialed experts play-
ing a supporting role. It invents alternatives to standard
scientific instruments and methods and, through its novel
approaches to community-based questions, critiques
mainstream science with an eye toward change. Activist
groups must decide how to trade off the political influ-
ence that comes with scientific legitimacy against their
ability to have their critiques recognized and responded to
in mainstream scientific practice. Finally, while running
the risk of being dismissed as “unscientific” for its explicit
political commitments, social movement-based projects
actually have the potential to strengthen scientific
knowledge by making the values inherent in all scientific
research more transparent, enabling those values to be
adjusted in keeping with societal needs and priorities.
Further Reading
Brown, P. (1992). “Popular Epidemiology and Toxic Waste
Contamination: Lay and Professional Ways of Know-
ing.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 33: 267-281.
Coming Clean and Global Community Monitor (2014).
Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution Identified at Oil and
Gas Development Sites. http://comingcleaninc.org/
warningsigns
Dosemagen, S., Warren, J., & Wylie, S. (2011). “Grassroots
Mapping: Creating a Participatory Map-making Pro-
cess Centered on Discourse.” Journal of Aesthetics and
Protest 8.
Social Movement-Based Citizen Science
103
Douglas, H. (2009). Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal.
Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Elliot, K. (2011). Is a Little Pollution Good for You? Oxford,
UK: Oxford University Press.
Kinchy, A. (2012). Seeds, Science, and Struggle: The Global
Politics of Transgenic Crops. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Macey, G. P., Breech, R., Chernaik, M., Cox, C., Larson, D.,
Thomas, D., & Carpenter, D. O. (2014). “Air Concentra-
tions of Volatile Compounds near Oil and Gas Produc-
tion: A Community-based Exploratory Study.”
Environmental Health 13: 82.
Ottinger, G. (2010). “Buckets of Resistance: Standards and
the Effectiveness of Citizen Science.” Science, Technolo-
gy, and Human Values 35: 244-270.
105
6
CITIZEN MICROBIOLOGY: A CASE
STUDY IN SPACE
David Coil
At 3:25 PM on April 18, 2014, I stood on the viewing
platform at Cape Canaveral, Florida, watching a massive
rocket carry a nationwide citizen science microbiology
project into space. This project would catalog hundreds of
types of bacteria living on the space station, survey thou-
sands more bacteria from participants around the country,
and measure the growth of common bacteria in space.
Mixed with the excitement and relief was a feeling of
amazement that we live in a time where such things are
possible. New and cheaper technology has completely
changed our understanding of microbiology in the last
decade or two. We can relatively cheaply ask questions
that weren’t even conceivable in the recent past. These
changes, along with rapidly growing public interest in
microbiology, have created the perfect conditions for an
explosion of what we call “citizen microbiology.” Our
project involving microbes in space is but one example of
this new and exciting field.
Over the last decade, microbiology has seen a renewed
surge of interest in popular media, books, and films.
Coil
106
While some of this relates to topics such as global pan-
demics and new diseases, increasing attention is being
paid to subjects like the importance of beneficial human-
associated microbes or the problem of antibiotic re-
sistance. Given the current level of public interest in both
microbiology and citizen science, it is perhaps no surprise
to hear that citizen microbiology is taking off. In this chap-
ter I’ll discuss the idea of citizen microbiology, the oppor-
tunities and challenges therein, a few examples, and one
detailed case study.
Before going into the details of citizen microbiology, a
few definitions might be in order. A “microbe” is tradi-
tionally defined as a living organism too small to be seen
with the naked eye. For our purposes this includes virus-
es, bacteria, fungi, and various other tiny creatures. “Mi-
crobiology” is the study of microbes and a “microbiome”
is the collection of microbes found in a particular habitat
(e.g., on a person or in a house).
A few microbiology citizen science projects that in-
volved culture-based monitoring (i.e., growing microbes
on plates in the lab) go back decades. For example, the
State of the Oyster project in Washington State has helped
volunteers monitor edible shellfish populations for harm-
ful bacteria since 1987. However, the ease and low cost of
DNA sequencing has been a major force for change. The
majority of citizen microbiology projects today are less
than ten years old, and rely in some way on cheap and
easy DNA sequencing. This sequencing allows researchers
to quickly and accurately identify most of the microbes in
a given sample.
Microbes are hard to see, often viewed negatively, and
have large impacts (good and bad) on human health.
These features create both opportunities and challenges in
conducting citizen microbiology.
Citizen Microbiology: A Case Study in Space
107
Opportunities & Challenges of Citizen Microbiology
Every human being carries a complex and unique col-
lection of microbes, making each person a valuable data
point in understanding the human microbiome. Given our
increasing understanding of the critical role played by
microbes in human health, this understanding may trans-
form numerous aspects of healthcare at an individual lev-
el. In addition to human-associated microbes, citizen
microbiology efforts involving environmental and water
monitoring can be extremely helpful in understanding
microbial ecology.
Beyond the scientific benefits, there is a tremendous
educational opportunity with microbiology. Many people
react negatively to words like “microbes” and “bacteria.”
It is far more common to find the term “germs” in the
media, usually portrayed in a health-influencing and neg-
ative way. Engaging the public through actually doing
microbiology provides an opening to discuss the fact that
microbes are everywhere, and the vast majority of them
are harmless or beneficial. Increased awareness of this fact
has important implications for human health, both direct-
ly (e.g., through reduced use of unnecessary antibiotics)
and indirectly (e.g., shifting away from “kill all the mi-
crobes” that is probably counterproductive for health).
Another opportunity with citizen microbiology is the
accessibility of samples: to get started all you often need is
a sterile swab. Citizen microbiology can also be adapted in
a hands-on manner in the classroom in a way that might
be difficult with, say, endangered birds. An excellent ex-
ample is the Phage Hunters project run by Graham Hat-
full at the University of Pittsburgh, where students
actually discover and characterize novel bacteriophages
(viruses that infect bacteria).
Citizen microbiology also presents a number of chal-
lenges, some of which are shared with other citizen sci-
Coil
108
ence projects but many of which are unique to, or more
problematic, when dealing with microbes. There is often,
for instance, a very strong negative association with mi-
crobiology and microbes. This is really both a challenge
and an opportunity, since educating the public about mi-
crobiology should be a primary goal of any citizen micro-
biology project. Many people are both surprised and
interested to learn how important microbes are to the
world around us and our own health. In our experience,
many times all that is needed is a couple examples of how
“germs” aren’t all bad to get people to be more open-
minded about microbiology.
For the researchers, the logistics of organizing sample
collections with citizen scientists can be quite complex.
For example, samples collected for DNA analysis need to
be protected from contamination and often kept frozen or
otherwise preserved. This can be particularly difficult in
the absence of electricity, which would require sub-
optimal chemical preservation methods or lugging around
crates of dry ice. Human-associated microbes run into is-
sues related to privacy, informed consent, and human-
subject research. Solutions to this problem range from pre-
tending it doesn’t exist, to anonymizing all data, to (for
example) collecting microbes from a cell phone instead of
a person directly. Actually growing microbes as part of
citizen microbiology (or in an educational setting) can
present biosafety concerns. When microbes are given rich
growth conditions (lots of food, warmth, liquid, etc.) it can
be hard to predict what will appear. In particular, growth
of human-associated microbes typically requires special-
ized equipment and training to ensure a minimal risk of
either contamination or spread. Government regulations,
and transportation/collection permits are other potential
snags. In one frustrating example from our own lab, we
recently discovered that while we could have mailed ani-
mal feces (rich with microbes) internationally without
permits, once we had extracted DNA from the same sam-
Citizen Microbiology: A Case Study in Space
109
ples it was considered highly regulated “biological mate-
rial from a protected species.”
Beyond the considerations in the field, one of the chal-
lenges with citizen microbiology—particularly that asso-
ciated with humans—is in not over-interpreting the data.
Conversations about the human microbiome tend to range
between “kill all the germs” and “I take three kinds of
probiotics and am considering a fecal transplant to get a
more healthy microbiome.” Scientists involved in citizen
microbiology need to be very careful about how they pre-
sent information about the human microbiome. Along
these lines, there is a lot of concern about “self-
experimentation” with projects that measure the microbi-
omes of participants. There’s nothing to prevent people
from radically changing their diet or lifestyle just to see
what that does to their microbiome. The problem is main-
ly with interpretation: surely, for instance, if you eat noth-
ing but beets for two weeks you’ll observe changes in
your gut microbiome, but no one can really say (yet) what
those changes mean.
Another challenge is that of communicating the data
back to the public. Traditional outputs of bacterial surveys
include statistics and graphs (with dozens of Latin species