Citizen science meets science communication

An ambitious new project aims to develop new ways of communicating about science through the growing army of people volunteering their time to take part in research.

Citizen science is a growing field where members of the public take part in scientific research. This is a broad area covering a range of levels of engagement, from being observers or funders to tagging pictures or collecting observations. Citizen science is viewed by the European Commission as an important part of democratising science and delivering the vision of ‘science for the people, by the people’.

Rosa Arias ESMH ScientistRosa Arias is the CEO of Science for Change, a company based in Barcelona that aims to use citizen science to tackle environmental issues : “I hope [citizen science] will become bigger and bigger. It’s receiving quite a lot of support by the European Commission, and at the national level in several countries across Europe there are more and more networks of citizen science practitioners.” Read the full interview

This is a growing area of interest, for example, the DITOS project, funded by Horizon 2020 finished last year, having involved 400,000 people in a project to engage the public in science and to close the communication gap between scientists and society.

One of the largest citizen science projects Zooniverse has registered over 2,000,000 volunteers to classify images of galaxies, animals in the Serengeti region, fossils and much more.

Often, volunteers for citizen science projects will be birdwatchers or stargazers – people who already have an interest in science. Arias refers to these as the ‘usual suspects’. She has a keen interest in citizen science and is coordinating an EU-funded project looking at odour pollution emitted by industry. “In this project, you don’t have the usual suspects, you have neighbours that are complaining about an environmental issue, which creates a conflict, and you need to engage them by talking to them all the time. This is a matter of concern for them, it’s not the case that they are interested in science – they are affected by an issue that can be monitored using citizen science,” she says.

This underlined the importance of science communication, especially when trying to reach communities who are not usually engaged with science. For this project, this included going beyond members of the public, says Arias. “We need to talk with policymakers, because the final aim of the project is to introduce the odour pollution into policy agendas. We also have to talk with the industries and of course with other scientists.”

Generating dialogue

This experience led to Arias becoming the coordinator for the NEWSERA project, which aims to develop strategies for using citizen science as a tool for science communication. The project launched in January and is expected to run for three years.

NEWSERA is aiming to find new ways to reach the different stakeholders involved in the scientific process – the public, scientists, policymakers and industry. The project involves a range of organisations from Italy, Spain and Portugal, including the University of Padova, The Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, the Ibercivis Foundation and Formicablu, a science communication agency.

After the kick-off meeting in Barcelona, putting together different communities for the first time it was clear where are the gaps between the different stakeholders:

Rosa Arias : “It was very interesting because it was obvious that the citizen science practitioners don’t know how to even reach journalists, which is something very basic. We don’t know who we need to talk to if we want to promote the project, for example. It was also obvious that the science communicator communities didn’t know about citizen science projects or that they can gather interesting stories from them. So this is the challenge – to generate these dialogues because they have common interests and needs.”

Overcoming barriers & testing strategies

While many researchers appreciate the importance of science communication, they often find it difficult to get started. Dr Cristina Luís from the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon, who is part of the NEWSERA consortium, hopes that they can identify the barriers and use training in citizen science as a way to overcome them. “We will be elaborating some training models, testing them and seeing how they work for researchers in the initial phases,” she says. They will start by testing a new course with PhD students at the faculty, before rolling it out into other settings.

Cristina Luis ESMH ScientistDr Cristina Luís from the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon, who is part of the NEWSERA consortium :”The idea is to test it in different contexts, with different audiences and see if it works. [We will use] questionnaires and other methods to see if they feel that they changed their way of seeing science communication or not, through this setting of citizen science.” Read the full interview

Training is only one of several aspects to the project. The team will also be looking to develop guidelines to improve trust in science communication, incentive mechanisms for scientists to take part in science communication, and data mining techniques to evaluate the impact of science communication strategies.

NEWSERA will bring together the different stakeholder groups to co-create a range of strategies for improving science communication. These strategies will then be trialled, tested and evaluated in existing citizen science projects.
The project plans to introduce the concept of scientific citizen journalism, where all of the stakeholders help to ensure transparency and reliability by defining the social, cultural and economic frameworks for the collection, analysis and communication of the data.

Rosa Arias : “Another thing that happens is spontaneous communication from the stakeholders already engaged. For example, citizens, when you manage to engage them, become like science communicators themselves. They use their own means, their social networks, to start talking about the project, and they start spreading the word. They may be using informal channels or different ways of communicating that are also very interesting because they are reaching other citizens. So we want to understand this spontaneous communication that happens also once you have stakeholders involved in the project.”

The team have launched a survey for people who are running citizen science projects to find out more about their experiences with science communication.

By the end of the project, the consortium plan to produce blueprints that other citizen science projects can follow in future, helping them to reach their target audiences – even those who are not the usual suspects.

Useful link
Commission Staff working document : Best Practices in Citizen Science for Environmental Monitoring

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