“Citizen” science?

June 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

At last—an article about renaming things in the name of social justice that is actually a reasonable discussion. This “op-ed” piece in the newest issue of Science, written by several authors, takes up the recent claim that the endeavor of “citizen science” should be renamed “community science”. And it concludes that it shouldn’t be, because it will blur the distinction between “citizen science”, which deals with scientific data collection by non-scientists, and “community science”, which is the collection of data aimed specifically at “protection of human rights and measurable improvements for communities who face environmental injustices and public health challenges.” Both of these are worthy aims, but the second is explicitly in the name of social justice. Conflating the names may have inimical effects on both endeavors, especially in funding efforts.

I of course am not opposed to the goals of social justice, but mainly to some of their performative, ineffective, and virtue-signaling tactics that its advocates use. In this case, I’m not 100% sure that keeping separate names for “citizen science” and “community science” will do what the authors want: preserve the latter practice while making the former more inclusive, but their argument is cogent—if a bit too long. So I’m on their side. They are more concerned with fixing things than with renaming as an easy way to look like you’re fixing things.

Click on the screenshot to read:

First, why do people object to the term “citizen science”? The authors describe two forms of this endeavor, the first being science projects run by institutions who guide many volunteers to collect data to advance scientific knowledge. The second involves participation of a bunch of diverse people in a common goal, but with no formal institutional leadership (I suppose the “annual Christmas bird count” is an example of the latter), and with a variety of goals, including “science, engagement, education, policy, and or/empowerment.

“Community science,” which has specific social justice aims, is defined above.

The objections to the term “citizen science” for these projects are outlined by the authors.

There are dozens of terms used to describe participants in citizen science, including phrases in different languages as well as terms within English that hold different meanings in different cultures. Terms that might offend in one culture (such as “amateur”) may be perfectly suitable to others, underscoring terminology challenges. Much of the debate about the use of the term citizen science has been in the United States. People born in the United States to currently or historically oppressed groups (such as by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation) could perceive the term citizen as a source of power inasmuch as all these groups have struggled to obtain the rights of democratic citizenship. Although the term citizen also refers to people who reside in a place or are citizens of the world, many people contest the term because they perceive it to exclude, or even convey hostility toward, those without citizenship status within a given nation. Consequently, an increasing number of organizations in the United States, such as the National Audubon Society and others , have adopted the term community science to rebrand their citizen science programs as open to all publics. Other institutions have selected alternative terms such as “civic science” (by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science) and “neighborhood science” (Los Angeles Public Libraries). In our personal experience, we have seen those in the sphere of public engagement in science call on others to use the term “community science” to describe citizen science activities.

But these name changes are done simply as cosmetic efforts, and the authors have better arguments to keep “citizen science” intact while using the traditional term “community science” as the name for citizens’ participation in specific projects of social transformation outlined above.

The authors argue that renaming “citizen science” as “community science” will blur the distinction between the two forms of group endeavors:

The basis of citizen science, in strong contrast to that of community science, is typically volunteerism within the realm of mainstream science, in which funds flow to academic, government agency, or nongovernmental organizations; credentialed individuals at those institutions make decisions, partially or wholly, about research directions; and projects can be geographically large, vastly exceeding the community scale. Relabeling citizen science as community science without consideration of these fundamental and structural differences may actually impede social justice efforts being carried out in the context of existing community science projects. We believe that switching the words citizen and community without regard to the traditions and norms associated with these well-established and quite different approaches to science is at least misleading and disingenuous and at most directly harmful because larger citizen science organizations could dilute the goals of, and potentially siphon donor funds away from, authentic community-driven efforts. Because community science is already underfunded, a clear distinction in terminology is necessary for establishing sources of support for authentic community-driven efforts.

The term community science should be reserved for projects that focus on local priorities and local perspectives and are able to maintain the locus of power in the community. A hallmark of individuals and organizations behind these efforts has been commitment to social action and antiracist, decolonizing research praxis aimed at elevating multiple ways of knowing, engendering trust, and sharing power (9). A name change alone for citizen science, not accompanied by altering underlying practices so that projects bring about structural change, is akin to false marketing.

So here we have a cogent case for not changing the name. The authors also call attention, sensibly, to the lack of historically oppressed people in “citizen science” projects, which is surely true: it’s largely a white person’s game. Including others can have a salubrious effect, not necessarily by increasing the diversity of “ethnic” viewpoints, but by getting more people involved and, especially, drawing into the science pipeline people who historically have not had the means or opportunity to join in. Both types of science should be made more inclusive. One reason we have trouble attracting minority graduate students and professors into STEM careers is because for various reasons their exposure to science, and hence the chance to become enthusiastic about it, is limited from the time they begin school.

Now “community science,” since it refers to projects aimed at helping poor or marginalized communities, is already on the way to inclusivity, for surely people who participate in some of these (one example is the Silent Spring Institute or the West End Revitalization Association of central North Carolina), are already people from historically oppressed groups.

So we agree that the terminology should be kept separate, for the reasons are to get more science done as well as improve society, and that (especially the latter) outweighs any performative offense connected with the use of the term “citizen science.”

But how do we get more marginalized people into “citizen science” so it’s less of a white person’s game? That’s where the problem lies. As the article suggests (my emphasis),

We suggest that citizen science projects will only become inclusive through action. Whether realigning existing projects and programs with inclusive practices or designing new projects, we recommend centering in the margins: If a project is accessible to the marginalized, it will be accessible to all. Although implementation will vary in its details, the broad approach is general and generalizable. For some projects, the best strategy may be to elevate culturally relevant perspectives (emphasizing diversity and inclusion). In others, the best strategy may be a focus on racial and economic disparities in environmental conditions (emphasizing justice and equity), aiming for sustained efforts to produce tangible outcomes beneficial to underserved groups. For institutions that house citizen science, attention to diverse representation in project leadership can assist in fostering accessibility, as will addressing structural barriers, such as economics (for example, costs of transportation and gear). Inclusion can be advanced by making a clear, honest linkage between project outcomes and the lives, livelihoods, values, and cultures of the participants. Prioritizing research funding to address the needs and interests of those historically and currently underserved by science will be a major step in providing the foundation for inclusive citizen science.

But the effective broad approach, beyond attracting minorities by emphasizing diversity and inclusion, is the approach I’ve recommended for years and put in bold above: “a focus on racial and economic disparities in environmental conditions (emphasizing justice and equity), aiming for sustained efforts to produce tangible outcomes beneficial to underserved groups.” In other words, fix society to create the conditions whereby not only the availability of citizen science projects is known, but for which the underserved have opportunities to take advantage of being “citizen scientists”. This seems like nothing less than a major social reform to create equal opportunity, involving reallocation of funding, improvement of schools, whatever cultural changes impede taking advantage of opportunities, and so on.

This will take decades, and we’ve barely started. Yet this is the only way to have true equality in America: to ensure that, from the very moment of birth, all children have equality of opportunity that will enable them to fulfill their potential. I realize that children born in rich families will still have an inherent advantage (homes full of books, private tutoring, etc.), but we can still do a lot—given that society has the will, and people are willing to make both pecuniary and social sacrifice to help those less fortunate.

While the Science article could have made its case in half its length, I applaud the authors for identifying a real problem with renaming, and for suggesting solutions that are more than window-dressing.

h/t: Luana

13 thoughts on ““Citizen” science?

  1. Including non-citizens (undocumented migrants, students on visas, green card holders) alongside citizens in a citizen science project also helps reduce the apparent differences among people in those groups, and encourages us to think of each other as coequals, at least when it comes to participating in research efforts. IOW equity.

    1. Perhaps “resident science” would be better? I think “citizen” here refers to the more general category and doesn’t exclude those other groups you mention.

      1. Well, yes, that’s the point: non-citizens were never actually excluded from “citizen science”, but activists choose to think the label is exclusive and advocate for a different label that isn’t needed.

        1. Exactly. The term “citizen science” is likely adopted owing to the alliteration making it a nice phrase. The term “citizen” is just intended to dignify the participants.That’s all. If you address someone as “citizen”, you’re being respectful. It just means “you participants are valuable to us”.

          It most certainly is not intended to restrict to actual legal “citizens”. For one thing, most “citizen science” projects that I’m aware of are international and welcome the participation of anyone with an internet connection, wherever they are.

  2. In French it is called “science participative”. Would a similar definition work in English?

      1. Pretty much all science is somewhere between moderately collaborative and extremely collaborative. The number of papers with a handful of authors is going down and the number of 10+ authors going up. (The “Dragon Man” paper is still open in another window on my desktop : 12 authors, 10 institutional addresses, 4 countries.)
        The mass-participation of minimally-trained “citizen” (loose sense) observers is certainly increasing with the use of the Internet. (Things like the astronomers “Galaxy Zoo” and it’s derivatives are cases in point.) But they’re less than new :
        – In the late 50s/ early 60s, my father contributed to a mapping project for a flora of the UK which involved several thousands of participant “citizen botanists” and early computer collation/ analysis.
        – Before the war, Britain had a number of sort-of sociology programmes lumped under the heading of “Mass Observation“. (Oh, it persisted and resurrected. Well, I sit informed.)
        – Astronomy has been getting significant input from non-professional contributors – comet- and asteroid- hunters, variable-star observers – since before the origin of the professional clade of astronomers.
        “Citizen science” doesn’t have any bad associations for me – but I don’t waste much time on the “dismal” sciences which seem to be the problematic ones.

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