Citizen Science

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Stewart Dutfield
Marist College

The role of science in the modern world will become increasingly critical in the years ahead, as health care, energy, resources and the global environment become ever more problematic. Science can appear to serve powerful institutions, such as stock markets and the weapons industry, more that it serves the people most affected by these problems. Meanwhile, the resources of society's professional scientists are overtaxed by the amount of data to be collected and the need to distribute expertise over a wide area. Science needs greater participation from people at large, and people need a greater voice in science.


Science is a human activity. Whether studying the physical world or society itself, it has tangible effects on society. Scientific knowledge is provisional, subject to revision. The scientific profession is inseparable from society as a whole; science requires funding and regulation, contributes expertise to official inquiries and investigations, and creates technological and social changes that affect us all. Citizen groups and individuals experience the benefits, hazards and missed opportunities of scientific development in the real world, not in the laboratory.


Citizen Science has been with us for a long time. Since 1900, the Audubon Society has organized volunteers throughout the US to count birds at Christmastime and used their data to build a huge database of early winter bird populations (“History & Objectives,” 2004). This is a clear-cut instance of Citizen Science as “a partnership between the public and professional scientists” (Citizen Science, 2003, para. 3); people benefit from learning about birds, the Society benefits from information it would otherwise lack the resources to obtain, and birds benefit from researchers’ knowledge of which species require special attention (“Citizen Science,” 2005).

Our relationship with science is not always so simple. Mistrust exists in public perceptions of science as offering scientific solutions to complex social problems, furthering various forms of social and environmental depredation, and inappropriately claiming certainty in judgments about risks associated with scientific and technological developments (Irwin, 1995). The drug industry’s investment in treatments seeking diseases of the rich (Blech, 2006), for example, undermines the view of scientific development as “open-minded, skeptical and independent of institutional constraints” (Irwin, 1995, p. 109). Agents of public policy, too, can contribute to popular mistrust, though supposedly representing the public interest. For example, the 1977 Windscale Inquiry was less democratic decision-making than keeping up appearances of public participation in a decision that had already been made (Irwin, 1995).

At the same time, science has cause to be wary of the public; in the US, for example, the proportion of people overtly accepting the idea of evolution has dropped from 45% to 40% since 1985 (Miller, Scott & Okamoto, 2006). Popular media have a stake in public mistrust of science because they stand to profit from science-related scare stories (Cassidy, 2006).

What scientists learn under controlled conditions differs in important ways from what people experience in real life. For example, British government regulations on the use of the herbicide 2,4,5–T assumed circumstances unrecognizable as those under which farm workers actually used the substance (Irwin, 1995; Corburn, 2005). Local knowledge—public experience and intuition—is a different kind of knowledge, differently gained, from the professional knowledge of scientific research and regulation (Corburn, 2005).

Overcoming the rift between professional and local knowledge lies in “a constructive renegotiation between science and the needs of citizens” (Irwin, 1995, p. 110). In what Corburn (2005) calls Street Science, professional science and the people most affected by it combine to co-produce knowledge that benefits both. In the field of environmental health, this co-production reveals hazards and provides information that professionals may miss, reduces mistrust of science, empowers community members, and creates positive engagement with problems instead of entrenched and polarized positions (2005, p. 218).

Local knowledge can both amplify and stimulate professional knowledge. The Watchperson project in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg section of Brooklyn NY combined government datasets and conducted surveys to map sources of air pollution at greater detail than regulators’ models (Corburn, 2005). Recent developments in wireless mobile sensors create possibilities for mapping pollutant levels at much finer detail than previously possible; one example using human volunteers is AIR (2006).

The scientific profession can further the co-production of knowledge by reaching out to individuals, communities and citizen groups. BirdSource ( uses an Internet-based tool to help more than 50,000 birdwatchers develop a deeper understanding of science and the environment while they accumulate data that helps to identify priorities for conservation. This extends the reach of science by providing knowledge that scientists would lack the resources to gather by themselves (Fitzpatrick & Gill, 2002).

Science Shops and Cooperative Extensions offer ground-breaking resources for the co-production of knowledge. Science Shops (such as provide university scientific expertise to the public, at the instigation either of students or citizen groups. The University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension ( Watershed Watch program works with government, tribal organizations and citizen groups to train volunteer water-quality monitors. Cornell Cooperative Extension ( provides scientific expertise and conducts scientific research as part of a mission to extend the democratic process by helping people participate in their communities (Peters, O’Connell, Alter & Jack, 2006).

Citizen groups can further their own aims while extending the reach of science. For example, the Ocean Conservancy ( conducts an international cleanup of marine debris on the third Saturday in September each year. While helping to clean the coastline, volunteers collect data that enables the Ocean Conservancy to learn about the causes of marine debris and to use this information in public education and advocacy.

Because mainstream scientific research does not pre-determine its conclusions, its use in advocacy is a double-edged sword. Activists may better spend their time in political lobbying than in scientific research whose results may not support their agenda. Just as the public mistrusts research funded by tobacco companies, for example, research by activist groups may appear suspect to policymakers and professional scientists. Despite this, many avenues are open for activists to initiate research that furthers their aims. Two examples follow.

Aiming to show a connection between pollution from incinerators, toxic waste storage and other industrial sources in the neighborhood and asthma in Greenpoint/Williamsburg, the El Puente group ( trained community members as community health workers and in conducting surveys. Their twofold process, of gathering information on asthma in surveys and then discussing the results in focus groups, uncovered knowledge about: (a) a link between women’s occupations and asthma not directly related to environmental pollution, (b) differing levels of asthma amongst Hispanic groups, and (c) underreported asthma rates because people avoided treatment at the local hospital (Corburn, 2005).

The Centre for Science and Environment ( uses the results of its own scientific research to publicize problems and solutions. A recent achievement has been the research-based development of rainwater harvesting methods, combined with community outreach and advocacy to policymakers, offering a “politics of hope” to those whose water supplies are declining in quantity and quality (


Use and develop means of collaboration between science and communities. People benefit by bringing both scientific knowledge and local knowledge to bear on the problems that they experience. Citizen groups, policymakers and professional scientists all gain from proven ways to do this.

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