We should be more sensitive to the mechanisms that affect Inclusion

Share, initiate and learn - citizen science in Europe

We should be more sensitive to the mechanisms that affect Inclusion

Our journey in trying to understand the meaning of inclusion started with Emily Dawson and her call for a fight against exclusion and inequality in science engagement at large. For our second interview, we decided to narrow down our research to Citizen science in particular and asked Taru Peltola, Associate professor at the Finnish Environment Institute, for help. She authored the chapter Science for everybody? Bridging the socio-economic gap in urban biodiversity monitoring in the book Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy.

[Edit] The next interview is now available: read what Shara Fisler shared with us.

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Picture by Martin Sharman

Taru, what is your position at the Finnish Environment Institute, and how is it related to inclusion?

I’ve always been interested in science studies and the role of knowledge in environmental decision-making. I am now an associate professor of social sustainability at the Finnish Environment Institute and the University of Eastern Finland and I am working on collaborative knowledge production, which includes citizen science. I also coordinate the network of citizen science projects at the Finnish Environment Institute.

My interest for inclusion is from a theoretical point of view. Public participation is seen as one of the key means of gaining legitimacy to environmental policy and governance. Engaging people with science and policymaking is envisioned to have a double impact: policies become more acceptable and understandable, and it also empowers people.

However, critical literature on public participation suggests that it does not necessarily increase democracy in decision making and may be biased or used for instrumental reasons. Citizen science has of course been studied from this critical point of view.

How inclusive is the field of citizen science at the moment, and what are the different reasons that can lead to exclusion in the context of citizen science?

Inclusion or exclusion can be influenced by different factors.

The first dimension would be to look at social groups: who participates in citizen science? Who doesn’t? Studies have shown that people involved in citizen science seem to be the “usual suspects”: people who have an interest in a topic (e.g. amateur naturalists), in an issue (e.g.air pollution) or people who already have skills in science. It seems like environmental research dominates the citizen science field, over social sciences, which also leads to a certain form of exclusion by affecting the topics covered.

Another angle would be the agency aspect: what kind of participation is allowed? This can be based on the different typologies of participation that have been discussed in the literature (the most famous one being Arnstein’s “Ladder of Participation” 1969). Does participation support the goals of the participants themselves? A tension between what the participant would like to do and what citizen science actually allows them to do might lead to exclusion.

Another factor would be the nature of the actual practices and tools used, that have an impact on the public that is capable to use them. For example, young people and seniors use very different tools. By using Instagram for a project, you already chose a tool that may exclude a certain category of people. The equipment can also play a role, as lots of projects are using smartphones, excluding people who don’t have such devices.

Can you tell us a little bit about the chapter you wrote for the UCL Citizen Science book and the case study in Grenoble?

This project was organised by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, in collaboration with an environmental NGO, and was initiated when the city of Grenoble decided to stop using pesticides for urban parks. The decision changed the way how parks looked like, and the city’s green space workers felt they had more work and that they were not able to answer questions coming from citizens.

Workers were invited to take part in an initiative on butterflies monitoring. Despite their lack of educational background in urban biodiversity and their doubts on their learning capacities, participants were highly motivated.

The project was very successful on the social learning aspect, and the outcomes were deeply valued by the participants. They gained self-confidence and some found a new social role as instructors of sustainable gardening in their neighbourhoods.

What made this project a success was its management, especially on a social and emotional aspect. Coordinators set a positive and reassuring atmosphere with jokes and humour and used effective techniques that facilitated learning.

They were also clever in considering the different assets and skills of every participant. Some were good at identifying butterflies, while others were better at catching them. Coordinators encouraged participants, which made them feel capable and useful in their own way. What was crucial was the sense of a learning community, making people feel that they all participate differently to a common goal. The collective effort relies on the strengths of each individual. Citizen science projects can feed this kind of collaborative emotion in many ways, even digital projects with feedback and comments or chat sections. Other projects might use gamification to establish an atmosphere of competition and excitement to maintain the feeling for participation.

What would be the benefits for citizen science to be (more) inclusive? How can we achieve that?

Inclusion can play a role in situations where science is contested. I have been working on a project of collaborative monitoring of wolves in Finland involving hunters. Wolves symbolise the battle between rural and urban lifestyles and relation to nature, and this battle is strengthened by the general feeling of being neglected by the society. In this particular case, citizen science has not been successful in gaining legitimacy for the very contested policy of protecting biodiversity and wolves, but this experience has slightly changed the way studies are done in the region: hunters are now involved in discussing the parameters and protocols of population models, extending their role from data provisioning. Hopefully this leads to mutual reflection on why and what kind of knowledge about wolves are produced. Allowing such conversation with groups who, without citizen science, would be totally left alone in their own social bubble is needed for society to pursue wider sustainability goals.

Citizen science has great potential for inclusion: it may become an arena for opening up and discussing issues with people that are usually not included. By involving wider groups, knowledge gathered together can help develop novel and socially more sustainable policies.

There is no general recipe to build an inclusive project. One of the most important things would be to be sensitive to the mechanisms that affect inclusion: what people can do, what people can gain, what motivates them. It can actually be helpful to learn from social sciences, or even to hire a social scientist in a project.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash