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Behind the Scenes of the First National Conference of Citizen Science Italia

Simona Cerrato
Jan. 23, 2024, 1:26 p.m.

From November 24th to 26th, the first national conference of the newly established association Citizen Science Italia took place in Pisa. It was a significant event held in the charming setting of the  Arsenali repubblicani, a venue that bears witness to the city's long maritime history and its openness to new horizons. We discussed the conference with Andrea Sforzi, Gaia Agnello, and Chiara Vitillo, the organisers of the event and the driving force behind the association. Tigre, Gaia's cat, joined us, never missing a video call when it comes to citizen science.

[link to the Italian version:]

Participants to the First National Conference of Citizen Science Italia (Pisa, November 24-26, 2023)

The conference is recent, so emotions and impressions are still fresh and present. What is the most memorable aspect that you would share with someone asking about how it went?

Chiara (C): What pleased me the most was the cheerful, friendly, collaborative atmosphere. There was enthusiastic participation. I'm glad it's not just a personal impression because it also emerged from informal conversations we had and the final evaluation questionnaire. It's somewhat similar to what happened during the first informal meeting organised in Grosseto in 2021.

Andrea (A): This aspect highlights the difference between a typical scientific conference, which we are accustomed to—more formal and less engaging—and the sense of great openness, availability, and listening that we wanted to convey. It reflects a community's need to meet, share experiences and knowledge, talk to each other, and build relationships, which are crucial in our field. On the other hand, success also has a downside because we had to turn away some people due to exceeding the maximum capacity of the venue, the wonderful Arsenali Repubblicani. There were more than 170 people! And we could have been more.

Gaia (G): It's a testimony to a collaboration that has been ongoing for years, creating almost familial bonds among people who share ideas and desires. Meeting in person was very exciting. We felt very much in tune with each other and with those who participated. The conference was also the concrete expression of our methods that have solidified over the years—in the structure of sessions and workshops—and clarified what we want to encourage among participants: dialogue and participation.

And something negative? What would you have liked to do better?

C: We want to involve the public more! It would have been nice if there had been more public participation at the conference.

G: I agree. It's time to tell the public about citizen science; we need to make it more known and encourage people to approach it with curiosity and openness. It depends on us; a national communication campaign is needed.

This is a common challenge for many initiatives, not just in Italy. Citizen scientists are missing; it's difficult to actively involve them in these meetings. I think we, active individuals in citizen science, should draw from the thirty-year experience of science communication and public engagement. Create an alliance with those working in museums, media, education, and learn new participatory methods based on dialogue, understand the public perception of science, make the scientific community more aware, and engage people. But this is a topic for another conversation.

Back to the conference, obviously, this event doesn't happen out of nowhere. Citizen science in Italy has an important history that finally received formal recognition this year with the creation of the association. It's a beautiful story: what were the important milestones?

A: The European experience was undoubtedly crucial. We learned and adopted interaction methods from experiences of exchange with other countries, based on listening and participatory methodologies, very different from strictly scientific contexts. We translated these methodologies into an Italian recipe, trying to adapt them to our cultural context.

G: Yes, the traditional presentation part was streamlined, and there were moments of discussion where people sat in a circle together with markers and post-its.

C: Everyone had so much to say and so many interesting things! Next time, we'll try to give even more space to dialogue and listening because attending a conference is not just about presenting your project but also about listening and participating.

Certainly, there is a need for inclusive spaces where people can voice their opinions. It sparks ideas, unleashes enthusiasm, and perhaps launches new collaborations and projects. Back to your story...

A: The timeline is this. Some Italians met in Berlin at the first ECSA conference in 2016. We gathered around a table to figure out if we could create a national network. We then met at a meeting in Milan and later at the first national conference in Rome in 2017 when the community was still an informal group of enthusiasts. Participation in the activities of the H2020 DITOs (Doing it together science) project in the following two years was crucial. It opened us up to the European context, giving us the opportunity to organise two national round tables and create a policy brief on guidelines for the national strategy of citizen science in Italy. In 2021, the conference in Grosseto marked another important milestone, and last year, the birth of the association on February 17th, 2023, with the presentation and delivery of the Guidelines for the development of citizen science in Italy to the Ministry of University and Research. Finally, the conference in November in Pisa.

Of course, this is just the beginning of the story. What are the projects for the future? How do you see your distant future, your vision? What are the next closer and more concrete steps?

A: The hope is to create a national centre for citizen science in Italy, perhaps with government funding, to make this approach more widespread and accredited. My vision, with a heart in Europe and feet in Italy, is to build a model for a European federation of citizen science, referring to ECSA and formed by national associations and networks. For now, the Italian one is the only true national association. There are many other bodies, centres, and networks that work very well in Austria, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and many others, but they are not formal associations. Our Italian association is very inspired by ECSA; we are also organising ourselves into thematic working groups and collaborating with ECSA on European projects. Gaia is, among other things, the ambassador in Italy for the ECS project. I am inspired by what has been done for European natural parks: there is a European federation, EUROPARK, where Italy is represented by the Italian association Federparchi. I imagine and hope for something similar for citizen science. A large European association, ECSA, that federates, supports, embraces various national associations. It would give a significant boost to citizen science both at the European and national levels and allow for greater long-term sustainability. Considering a closer horizon, I think about creating an Italian platform using the software from the European one,, with which we already collaborate for its restructuring and relaunch. Then we want to strengthen our role in Italy and meet the needs of the national community, creating a more stable structure.

C: I would like to work very concretely on the creation of working groups, small groups of people working on a certain topic, and then share the results of their reflections with everyone else. This would allow us to become more operational, a need that emerged during the conference, along with a thousand interesting ideas. The next appointment is the association's assembly, which will take place in February 2024. And, of course, the next conference in two years.

I naturally take up the invitation and mark this appointment. It's an appointment for everyone!

A: Yes, but in the meantime, many important things are shaping up on the horizon, so follow us and participate.

And Tigre, who has remained silently attentive so far? Do you have anything to say?

T: Meow!

The cat Tigre, a big fan of citizen science

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