Democratizing Discovery with Citizen Science

Mid-2014 in Flint, Michigan, the tap water turned brown. When city officials refused to acknowledge residents’ concerns, LeeAnne Walters took it upon herself to get outside help, mailing a water sample to environmental engineer, Marc Edwards, who found dangerously high concentrations of lead, a potent neurotoxin. When Flint city officials rejected his conclusions, Edwards sent out several students to distribute 300 water sampling kits to Flint residents. Following that, he set up a blog to report the test results to the public and explain their significance. Soon, the Flint water crisis was receiving national attention and millions in funding. While the Flint water crisis is tragic, it is also a stunning example of the power associated with the participation of ordinary people in scientific discovery—a process known as citizen science. Citizen science occurs when community members generate scientific data or knowledge, typically in collaboration with professional scientists or scientific institutions. It is a process that allows researchers access to huge databases of information without the same geographical restrictions that might limit a small, independent team of scientists, enabling faster results with  larger sample sizes. In addition, it democratizes the process of science, demanding discussion of issues that have historically been handled behind closed doors. This discourse holds science accountable to the public and works to ensure that the research being conducted in the United States aligns with the priorities of the general population.

Critics of the movement insist that citizen science is merely poorly executed research; an endeavor that engages the public but does not achieve its primary goal of collecting reliable and meaningful data. This was one of the reasons Flint city officials cited for rejecting Edwards’ initial conclusions. After all, the people collecting data simply do not have the same rigorous training as  accredited scientists. Is it possible for them to produce results of comparable quality? In reality, the answer is that it depends. Variations in methodology greatly impact the success of citizen science projects. For example, projects with a clear and simple platform for data collection tend to have fewer user errors, resulting in higher quality raw data. Larger group sizes, prior training sessions, and having citizen scientists commit to long-term participation are three more factors that strongly improve the accuracy of data collected. What these factors ultimately show is that it is essential to design the methodology of citizen science studies with the skills of the participants in mind; asking nonscientists to perform technical tasks without appropriate training will almost certainly diminish the accuracy of the final results. As such, while it is true that citizen science can produce inconclusive results, this is often because the methodology and objectives are poorly communicated to the citizen scientists in the first place, hurting the integrity of the data and reducing its accuracy.

When appropriately executed, citizen science can be a powerful tool for gathering large volumes of data from a wide variety of locations.  eBird is an example of a citizen science project that collects observations from birdwatchers to better track and understand how the migratory patterns of birds are changing. Using traditional research methods, surveys would only be conducted once or twice per year, preventing accurate modeling of year-long migration patterns. However, with the input of nonscientist birdwatchers, eBird acquires a year-round stream of data. They ensure the accuracy of their data by employing rigorous quality control of all data collected. eBird has a trained staff of volunteer reviewers that check birdwatchers’ uploaded observations for accuracy. If a birdwatcher seems to have misidentified a species or over-counted a rare bird, reviewers follow up with the original birdwatcher to get more information, ensuring that the data collected is accurate. This wealth of reliable information enables the researchers behind eBird to explore relationships between bird migratory patterns and many other variables, such as weather, population density, and temperature. Having the resources to answer questions like these results in better understanding of conservation efforts and the impacts of climate change, while also contributing to the development of new statistical models that could be applied elsewhere. Ultimately, citizen science has the potential to open doors for researchers who need more information, especially on projects with broad public interest.

By allowing broad public participation, citizen science also works to break down the existing barrier between science and society. Science, both as a process and a body of knowledge, is not well understood by the public. Breaking down this barrier is imperative not only to conducting good science, but to making science matter. Every day, society is faced with challenges in our natural environments, our energy sources, and even our water supplies. These challenges have tangible impacts on the day-to-day lives of people all over the world. Yet, the general public lacks understanding of the processes driving these issues. This isn’t to say that everyone needs detailed, technical knowledge of the scientific processes driving issues like climate change, but it does mean that there needs to be a better avenue through which citizens can engage with science. Citizen science allows residents to gain a better understanding of the issues in their community. This understanding empowers residents to hold local government accountable for their health and well-being. When Flint city officials initially refused to hear the claims of their constituents, residents organized into a network of citizen scientists that was able to acquire the proof that they needed to create change. Without the mass-mobilization of concerned community members, change certainly would not have occurred as quickly as it did.

When people understand and engage with the scientific issues in their community, science becomes a democratic process. It forces research typically done behind closed doors to be examined in the public sphere. When subject to public scrutiny, science is held accountable for furthering the priorities of the public rather than serving private interests. Looking back at Flint, residents contested political decisions made by city officials using citizen science, holding the city government accountable to its constituents. Since citizen science necessarily takes place with public support and is often publicly funded, it works to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on R&D projects that align with public interests. Furthermore, citizen scientists are unpaid volunteers from diverse backgrounds with no institutional biases or affiliations affecting their data collection. While volunteers may have personal biases, their multitude of backgrounds still ensures a more inclusive approach than a single institutional actor. Additionally, as the volunteer pool grows, personal biases become more likely to cancel out, reducing any impact they may have had on the data. Public support and engagement, in combination with transparency and reduced bias, strengthen the democratic component of science that makes it relevant to society.

Citizen science is not a perfect process. It flatly contradicts the scientific method at times and can be challenging to organize and implement effectively. That being said, there exists a need for the sweeping data sets from hard-to-reach places that citizen science makes possible. Beyond just the process of discovery, citizen science also has important implications for a democratic society at large. One of the challenges associated with a system of government that is designed to act based on the will of the majority is in ensuring that the public has the resources they need to make informed decisions, to participate, and to act in the best interest of their collective future. In order to do this, it is necessary to engage people in the process of scientific discovery and to do so in a way that is inclusive and equitable. Citizen science is not a one-stop-shop solution to this problem, but it is a step in the right direction, both for science and society.