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Reflections from the first ever course on Citizen science and Local ecological knowledge at the University of Iceland

Baiba Pruse
April 20, 2022, 3 p.m.

Authors: Parnika Gupta, Hlynur Steinsson, Theresa Henke, Walter L. Brent van der Hell, Moira Aileen Brennan, Diana Sól Editudóttir, Kayla Maureen Þorbjörnsson, Lina Andrea Johansson, Marina Ermina, Aron Alexander Þorvarðarson, Guðrún Heiður Ísaksdóttir, Bjargey Anna Guðbrandsdóttir, Baiba Prūse

How many perspectives can the subject of citizen science and local ecological knowledge outline? A simple answer: many. Let us take you through a one week adventure where lecturer Baiba Prūse from Ca’Foscari University of Venice (Italy) together with several collaborators introduced numerous angles while discussing citizen science (CS) and local ecological knowledge (LEK) to the students as part of a course at the University of Iceland (more: 

Hlynur Steinsson: “Looking back, if I am to be completely honest, what I had in mind when I registered for the course was probably just to potentially use citizen science as a data source for a project. Now I feel that I have a different look of CS where it is much more of a democratic and inclusive way of working on projects and research. I had already been somewhat introduced to the fact that indigenous and aboriginal cultures have a valuable and righteous place at the table when it comes to perspectives for impactful research and effective management. Their history, local connection and knowledge of areas can far surpass the abilities of many academic specialists. This CS course took this somewhat further, putting forward the theory of inclusion of various cultures, classes and peoples on all steps of a research project. I think that's what was the most influential part of the course for me. Portraying science as a more democratic and inclusive process”. 

As part of the course several invited guests answered student questions related to citizen science. As to that, during the first lecture a study on citizen science and sustainability transitions by Sauermann and colleagues (2020) was used as a base for the discussion with Claudia Göbel from the Institut für Hochschulforschung (HoF) Halle-Wittenberg (Germany). Throughout the conversation based on the student questions, the aspects of holding power during decision making and individual responsibility from the researcher's side was discussed. Claudia Göbel added that: “The spot of interest in Citizen Science lies somewhere in the blurry middle between the Productivity view and the Democratisation view”. Several questions were outlined by the students, where one question focused on the matter of inclusion. To this, Claudia reflected that: “There is still a lot of work to do for Citizen Science to become more inclusive and to examine how the new types of projects can also be excluding to many people. What is more, we need to reflect on questions like - Is participation always good? and What we can learn from non-participation?”

This lecture also brought reflections from the students. For example Parnika Gupta notes: “we are thinking of researchers and citizens as belonging to different levels in a pyramid, but we need to put them at horizontal level, with other institutional needs being in vertical zones based on their power and authority”. 

After the lecture, the students were invited to begin the journey in providing the draft translation of the ECSA 10 principles in Icelandic. This exercise provided the students with an opportunity to collaborate on a task outside their expertise whilst practising inclusion, two-way communication and teamwork. This gave the students that were unfamiliar with the Icelandic language a challenging task of explaining the context of principles while the student accustomed to Icelandic drafted the translation, similar to what one might encounter while explaining science to citizens. Baiba notes that this in turn may provide a working ground for the University of Iceland to integrate the concept of citizen science in more concrete ways. 

Parnika Gupta: “I started with no knowledge about citizen science but through this course, I was able to learn a lot of different perspectives related to citizen science. The course served as an introspection and depicted the importance of compassion and empathy whenever communicating with local communities and citizens. This is overlooked often, as the students tend to focus more on the research questions rather than thinking from the perspectives of the citizens involved when studying knowledge and practices. It is an apt reminder that being a researcher doesn’t separate us from the responsibility of practising humility and we should always acknowledge differing points of views with inclusive behaviour. In order to work together scientifically for the betterment of humans, one must listen patiently whilst making oneself sit down at the level of the citizens without any bias or prejudice”. 

As part of the second lecture our guests were Frank Becker from TU Berlin Science Shop Kubus (Germany) and Björk Þorleifsdóttir from the Reykjavík Botanic Garden (Iceland). An important take-home message listed in the notes of students is what Frank shared: “scientists do not have the capacity to fix all the world's problems and find all the answers, but they can underline the importance of different groups of people cooperating together”. On top of that, Björk brought us into the subject of how important it is for the citizens to regenerate the practice of “reading” nature. She also highlighted how children learn about nature through the eyes of their teachers and parents.

Along the many questions raised based on the reading of Participation and Co-creation in Citizen Science (Senabre et al., 2021), several key aspects were of interest to the students; how to keep healthy balance in CS initiatives in order to overcome any misuse of citizen contribution or abusive actions and how to keep transparent in communication with citizens. On a question raised by the students about the young academics and the pressure on publishing, Frank Becker suggests: “My advice for young people today: gain some experience using your hands and then also your brain - it is a matter of balancing yourself”. The notion that every individual matters and individual responsibility is of importance repeatedly appeared during the guest contributions. 

Theresa Henke: “With my research I somehow ended up incorporating citizen science approaches and was able to experience many benefits of involving citizens, in my case recreational fishermen, in data collection. My expectations of this course were to build up some more knowledge about citizen science and local ecological knowledge beyond my own experiences. These expectations were exceeded by far learning about the many facets of citizen science approaches and the many different levels on which participants can be involved. The practical insights especially gave me many ideas that I hope to apply in future projects”.

Storytelling - another approach used in citizen science and participatory work in general was part of the third lecture day. Andrea Troncoso the Chair of ECSA WG on storytelling and Ásthildur Jónsdóttir - art professor, artist and curator shared insights of various practices. The questions outlined for the invited guests included the change of mindset and what it takes to be a storyteller. Andrea Troncoso noted: “Creativity is always something that you need to nurture and practice. You will get better and better by doing creative practices”. Some of the students included a summary of the example shared by Ásthildur regarding her work with old barns back in Switzerland. A student sums up the shared example that for one relatively simple subject, what to do with 600 old barns, there will be many different opinions. Some of them will be very strong, and others will not be. Therefore, it is very important to find common ground and build up from that. Using art and storytelling to find that common ground and share it with the people would benefit all. “You shine more if other people shine with you” - Ásthildur Jónsdóttir.

Guðrún Heiður Ísaksdóttir: “As an artist, I could relate citizen science to my artistic practice and how many artists use artistic research in their practices. The curiosity that drives us humans to better understand the world around us and how we use complex systems, sometimes without realising it, to come to a conclusion and describe our findings to each other is something that this course brought to my attention. It made me realise that whatever path we have chosen, we all are artists to some extent. Our medium just differs slightly”. 

The experience - the process of experiencing -; that is what makes the lectures more engaging, notes Baiba. Thus, the fourth day was created in a way where the students would be able to observe three communities and have a live call with them afterwards. These communities included a self-sustaining farm and bee-keeper in Latvia, and an urban sheep farmer in Reykjavik (photo below). Three different directions of questions were formed by the students to understand the nature of the local practices of these community members. Before approaching the communities however, distinct attention was paid to introduce the students to researchers who have had a great amount of experience in undertaking field work. 

For this purpose - the members of the DiGe project team - Julia Prakofjewa and Giulia Mattalia from Ca’Foscari University of Venice (Italy) shared their research experience emphasising the importance of continuous learning through field work practices and acknowledging the diversity and knowledge shared by the communities. Based on the reading of Rodrigues et al. (2020) on participatory ethnobotany, students brought questions about the methodological aspects of field work, such as ethical permits and training provided to the local community. Eliana Rodrigues from Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Brazil) emphasised how the work with communities on the subject of plants and plant uses could introduce a focused purpose of life for youth who struggle with addictions. Dauro Mattia Zocchi from University of Gastronomic Sciences (Italy) introduced the students to the exploratory path taken on with the Ark of Taste project. Lastly, Cory W. Whitney from University of Bonn (Germany) shared his experience during the ethnobotanical work in Iceland and provided future research directions for the students. 

Diana Sól Editudóttir: “What I realised and felt was important is that citizen science projects can help strengthen communities that need support by giving people purpose and a different perspective through citizen science projects”.

The final day of the course again highlighted new aspects related to citizen science , namely the legitimization of citizen gathered data. This was introduced to us by Anna Berti Suman, who is employed at the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) - Digital Economy Unit (Italy). Students asked about examples of regions that are on the forefront when it comes to incorporating the benefits of CS approaches during decision and policy making processes. In her response, Anna named Belgium, Netherlands and Japan as examples where citizen sensing and other forms of citizen participation have been pivotal factors in decision making, especially to address sudden or persistent local risks. Furthermore, Anna introduced the students to the U.S. Formosa case as a milestone for  the use of citizen-collected evidence in environmental litigation.

At the last part of the lecture the students held presentations related to citizen science activities that could potentially be integrated in Iceland. From Baibas’ perspective, significant value was added by the researchers who attended the sessions and who introduced themes for the students to consider working on during their future studies, such as  glaciers and archeology using citizen science as an effective method. 

The three communities: beekeeper in Latvia, urban-sheep farmer in Reykjavik and self-sustaining farm in Latvia.

Baiba Prūse: “I highly value the students for their eagerness and open minded attitudes, and for taking the challenge to join a course on a subject unknown to them. They considered the perspective of the various tools introduced for their future research and brought critical and thoughtful questions to the researchers from the diversity of fields. I am thankful for all the collaborators and communities for joining this adventure by sharing the many perspectives on the course subject. This collaborative approach with the researchers from the field is in my opinion the way to introduce a subject in these dynamic times. In this way, the students are encouraged to navigate through the materials and to join the networks available. My task as a lecturer is to link the students to the sources of the subject of interest and open the network I have built to them. In my opinion, the practices of co-creation do not have boundaries and the value of collaboration may possibly change the lives of people even without us noticing directly”. 

The course: Citizen science and Local ecological knowledge at the University of Iceland, 2022. 

To conclude, this blog post is based on the notes and question lists co-produced among all the students during the lectures and holds only part of the many insights brought to us by the guests and the general course. 

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