From RSPB’s Great Garden Birdwatch, to Soil Association initiatives like the Innovative Farmers Programme and their Out To Lunch research on food at visitor attractions, through to Cancer Research’s app-based games, Citizen Science is becoming a bit of a buzz phrase these days.  But what really is all the fuss about?

The best place to start is this question: what does the word ‘expertise’ mean to you?

The dictionary definition is ‘A person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area.’  We usually think of that as meaning a very small group of people – people  who study the theory, have formal qualifications and letters after their names. The academics. The lab coats. The geeks.

But those aren’t the only experts.  Zoologists may know how many species of birds exist in the world, but you know exactly which ones appear in your garden. Agroeconomists may know the quantity and price which optimises the production of food in theory, but farmers know the conditions on the ground which may mean achieving this is not always possible or perhaps even desirable. Lab researchers may understand the effects on cells of treatments for certain types of cancers, but only patients and their families truly understand the impact on the whole person.  

There are many aspects of knowledge and therefore just as many types of experts. That dictionary definition of ‘expert’ makes no mention of formal theoretical qualifications, after all.

So how can we unleash that expert in everyone? How do we close the chasm that exists between Us ‘The Ordinary Folks’ and Them ‘The Experts’?

This is where Citizen Science comes in. In its narrowest definition, Citizen Science is public involvement in scientific discovery. But at it’s core, it’s about empowerment, citizenship and stewardship. Empowerment because it allows us to take control and ownership of our knowledge and skills in a particular area. Citizenship because it understands that we don’t have to be just the end-consumer of scientific knowledge but can be contributors and co-producers. And stewardship because by inspiring us all to apply our curiosity, talent and experience to a range of real world problems, we all take responsibility for addressing the big issues we face.

Of course Citizen Science is not immune to skepticism. Two of the most common challenges are around whether it truly helps to make a difference in science and whether it is really participatory. As far as we can see, the evidence is growing on both fronts that it absolutely does make a difference in science (or at least it can when done well), and it absolutely is participatory. But both these challenges also miss a key point: that Citizen Science actually grows the mandate for and trust in science precisely because it involves people in the process, instead of simply telling them about the outputs.

This combination of real scientific contribution, participatory muscle-building and the creation of much-needed trust in our society is why Citizen Science is such a powerful phenomenon – and there are so many exciting projects taking off. Our favourites include:

  • DigVentures: opens the opportunity to find your inner Indiana Jones, using crowdfunding to make more archaeological digs happen involving more people. The information collected is open to all members through a virtual museum.
  • Ubiome: a crowdfunding project which gathers various data sources to map human microbiome to create the world’s largest microbiome database.
  • Nairobi Community Satellite Imaging: collaboration between researchers and local people to uncover the truth behind food insecurities in Nairobi urban dwellings.
  • Stall Catchers: first online game to crowdsource Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research.
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Pain: the world’s first smartphone-based study to investigate the association between weather and arthritis/chronic pain.

Our wider work as New Citizenship Project is all rooted in this idea that involving people actively and creatively in the process is a far more generative way of working, no matter what the field, than simply broadcasting outputs from a narrow ‘expert’ group. But for now, we wanted to share that we’ve done some work on the underlying principles and ideas behind the growing Citizen Science movement that we’re really happy to share – so if you’d like to know more, just drop us an email and we’ll happily send you our briefing document.

This post and our Citizen Science work was written by Meng Jiang

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