Scientific and civic engagements in citizen science. Anticipation for the Engaging Citizen Science Conference 2022

Simona Cerrato
March 9, 2022, 10 a.m.

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Why does citizen science engage scientists and citizens? How do we as citizen science practitioners and researchers make sure that citizen science will continue to be engaging — and engaged in the creation of new scientific knowledge, while also addressing issues of public concern? These are some of the topics that will be discussed and reflected upon by Dick Kasperowski, professor of Theory of Science at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and keynote speaker at the Engaging Citizen Science Conference 2022 (25-26 April 2022, Aarhus, Denmark). Kasperowski shares his views in an interview anticipating some of the main issues in his speech.

The Engaging Citizen Science Conference is an important opportunity for the citizen science community. The aim of the conference is to engage citizen science researchers, practitioners, and citizens in sharing research, ideas, and innovations in order to make the field thrive and expand. The conference will be interdisciplinary in scope, hosting workshops, dialogue roundtables, posters, and demos from all main areas of research: natural and technical sciences, life and health sciences, and social sciences and humanities.

We have reached out to one of the keynote speakers, Dick Kasperowski, and had a conversation about governance of science, scientific citizenship and the management of uncertainty in public scientific controversies and how citizen science, while contributing with a new and effective approach, also makes some problematic issues of inequality visible.

How can the topics of governance, inclusion and participation be tackled with the citizen science approach?

This question refers to my main interest, which revolves around inclusion and epistemic representation. Today citizen science means engaging with diverse communities of practice, a diverse range of stakeholders, and diverging objectives. As such, citizen science is inclusive by default. Yet what does it take to be included and be represented by the knowledge produced? How can you or anyone else be represented? Also, citizen science turns citizens and communities into entrepreneurial actors in order to enable citizen-focused policy-making and requires scientists to meet social responsibilities. In this complex context, the question of who is an expert in scientific issues arises. As an anthropologist I am very interested to explore this issue: we all know that researchers and scientists doing the same thing, interested in the same type of objects, still come out with completely different recommendations when you have to make some kind of decision that affects society. This includes issues such as storage of burnt out nuclear fuel, global issues of biodiversity, climate change, fishing quotas and other contested areas. So who are the experts? How are evidence-based decisions made? Where and how are citizens let in in the process?

All complex issues — and to date all or almost all scientific and technological issues are or have the potential to be controversial — must be tackled from a multitude of perspectives and involve a variety of stakeholders with very different visions, needs, resources and demands. How can you manage this complexity and come out with sensible solutions?

As a theorist of science – and maybe of citizen science – I am interested in how you can understand the intertwined issues of epistemic and political representations. Representations are important: political representation is something that you have in liberal representative democracies, and epistemic representation is based on knowledge and is something that science might provide us with. But maybe not always. In air quality or other environmental and health issues epistemic representation might not be attained in the granularity that is asked for by citizens? How can you produce data that represent you as a citizen and realise a social change that is necessary for your community?

For instance, in Gothenburg, Sweden, in one part of the city there is heavy pollution from cars. If you call the City Council and ask for the number of particles in your particular street, they can’t give an exact answer for your specific locality. That is something the scientific knowledge has problems with, the particularities, patients that don't meet the inclusion criteria of research used for evidence based clinical practices, for instance. Air quality measurement in Gothenburg relies on a limited amount of stations to monitor air quality in the entire city, all the rest of data are inferred through mathematics and mean values over certain time periods. This actually produces good scientific data that can be compared over long time spans. But it cannot give epistemic representation to all citizens. Yet people realize that in the morning between 7:30 and 10, in a certain part of the city, the air is not good, smells, and the particle matter is very high. This is the time when children go to school. So you can argue with the City Council and ask them to take appropriate measures, maybe use a movable measuring station in the area. Or, as a citizen scientist, you are able to get your own measurements, you get knowledge that represents you and target your concerns, and that’s different from political representation. I think, in the future the relations between political and epistemic representation will be more on the agenda. This will certainly create more controversy over data as citizenship might be more data driven than before. This is how citizen science might make a difference to the democracies of late modernity, and I think this is also, at least partly, what Muki Haklay has in mind with the concept of extreme citizen science. I do believe that citizen science needs a strong open representative democracy with free speech, press, human rights, etc. to be developed to its full potential. Citizen science does not thrive in authoritarian states, I think.

An interesting example of such more activist driven citizen science from Sweden connects to Artportalen ( it is an enormous report system for flora and fauna with millions of observations, managed by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. It is extensively used for biodiversity and environmental issues at all levels, local, regional and national in Sweden. The data are also evaluated by experts (evaluation committees), and are used for societal decision making concerning biodiversity and the use of land and water at several political levels in Sweden.

Now, in Sweden we have environmental decisions that are based on all the channeled data through structures and infrastructures used by citizens such as Artportalen. It creates a democracy issue also. If politicians don’t listen and don’t represent your concerns, you enroll in activist citizen science to create data that represent you, and large systems like Artportalen are increasingly used for this.

Participation, citizen engagements, democratization, governance in science, technology and related issues are of the highest importance. Citizen science has the potential to empower citizens to take the lead and force the change relevant for them. But who are the people who contribute actively and participate in these initiatives? Is citizen science really inclusive at all levels as stated in its principles?

No, it seems from several studies that citizen science also creates or recreates inequalities already present in society.

We have studied how inequalities develop over almost two decades in one of the largest portals in the world for reporting biodiversity, namely the just mentioned Artportalen or by its English name the Swedish species observation portal. Artportalen collects data that are used and aggregated by facilities like the GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) based in Copenhagen: these institutions super aggregate a lot of data collected worldwide and use these data also for monitoring the SDGs as well as produce important global data on the decline of biodiversity. We found profound long-term imbalances in gender contribution across species groups, which persisted over time and generally did not improve with the introduction of new Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). Male reporters dominated in numbers, spent more days in the field reporting, and subsequently contributed more to the overall biodiversity reported. Men also reported more species on each field day visit compared to women, especially for birds, invertebrates and over time also for some other species groups. 

The typical contributor to these portals is a man, is of age, he has resources, is well educated and is very interested: this means that there are a lot of imbalances. To put it bluntly: It means that it’s a male gaze of the world! Certain data and individuals circulate more often than others in the super aggregated images of the challenges for humanity. Who and what is represented here? Is this a form of bias?

This is the typical pattern reported in all initiatives, activities, projects. Science is still male pale and stale… and it seems that citizen science is reproducing the same inequalities. We have just celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and soon there will be the International Womens Day. These are symbolic events highlighting the many obstacles that women still encounter in their lives and careers. It has been calculated that we still need 258 years to close the gap between male and female in science (ref: The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented?, 15 million authors, 36 million papers, 6000 journals, 15 years, 100 countries).

How can we mitigate these imbalances?

People of resources produce data that are probably affecting many beyond the social strata when it comes to environmental decisions. The expectations and social imagery of citizen science is that it should be democratic, and it is opening up science for more people, it is creating a new scientific culture, in that respect. Politicians in Sweden in their research proposal for the incoming four years identify the participation of citizens in producing scientific knowledge as very important. It is supposed to solve a lot of problems including the polarization in society and the trust in science. It is a nice thought, but inequalities in citizen science will be resolved when inequalities in science (or in society, as science always is in society) will be resolved and that is a large issue that we have been trying to address for the last 50 years, with varying results.

Initiatives in citizen science often come from science, and we should not be surprised that inequalities are recreated in citizen science. It is very interesting to see that these inequalities might become more visible in citizen science than in regular science, because more activist citizen science takes some aspects of science, brings them into the public realm and makes them visible. But at the super aggregate level all the cultural and social aspects of citizen science are taken away, because it is just numbers, measures and visual representations. And we know that this image is probably the male gaze of the world.

Do you think that citizen science can do something to push things forward?

I do believe in citizen science, because it makes things visible in a way that science doesn’t. But I don’t think that it can solve the inequalities we face. They have been around for ages. Citizens should be involved in all aspects of the scientific process, and at present this is not true: they are involved in very limited areas, classifications, observations, etc. and are involved in the formulation of hypotheses only in a very limited way.

When we look at the history of science it is very easy to combine big names like Boyle or Linnaeus in Sweden or even Darwin, with a lot of invisible people who were absolutely instrumental in creating their knowledge. Boyle for instance had a workshop full of people who worked for him creating instruments but they were to a large extent made invisible. Science has always relied on this distributed work but there are only certain people who become visible. In this regard citizen science can make us think and understand how our work is distributed and who benefits from it, and whether it can create social mobility.

Citizen science can’t live up to all the science policy expectations of it. The interesting aspect is how activist citizen science can change this and contribute with new epistemic representations. I have no doubt that even activist citizen science is done by people who have resources to do it. Yet there are examples where barriers have been overcome. Projects like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is a very important example of activism: it partners with communities adjacent to industrial sites that pollute air, water and soil with the mission to end the petrochemical industry’s destruction of Louisiana. People who don’t have resources and are exploited —  who are on the fringe of society. They collect data in a particular bucket — this is the reason for the name — and use the data which are now recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a valid scientific instrument. They create litigations and take the data to Court and sue these big companies and ask for relocation funding.

This is also happening in Sweden but the process is less inclusive because it is done by people who have resources, channeling their observations through Artportalen to be used in forming court cases.

You gave us a lot of food for thought… to conclude, what would be your message to the citizen science community?

As a phenomenon, citizen science is super interesting because it tackles aspects of democracy, representation, inclusion, exclusion played out in relation with the most advanced systems we have to produce knowledge, namely science.

It is a very dynamic field and full of potential, but it still is a fringe activity if you look at the amount of publications in relation to ordinary science. It brings a lot of questions when it comes to the relation of science and society and for this it is very important.

There is still a great deal to do to transform this sector into a truly participatory and inclusive environment. And, indeed, inequalities in citizen science will be solved when inequalities will be solved in science.

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