Citizen Science

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Science plays a critical role in the modern world and this role could become increasingly critical in the years ahead as problems related to health care, environmental problems, and energy needs become even more daunting. Unfortunately scientists are often to serving the agendas of the world's most powerful institutions. The U.S. government, for example, is interested in developing the next generation of nuclear weapons, while large corporations are eager for profitable new drugs. In other situations that require systematic thinking and scientific expertise, the job is too big for society's professional scientists; the amount of data to be collected is too vast and the need to distribute the expertise over a wide area overtaxes traditional resources.


Basically whenever communities need information that can help them with their goals but is unllikely to be generated through other means. People -- often students -- can play a useful role in assisting wtih scientific research. At the same time, they learn principles and how the scientific enterprise is conducted.


Citizens can help with the general scientific enterprise or with the application of scientific principles and methods that will help them deal with issues of public health or other concerns that they might have. Science is too important to be left to scientists.

This can help build society's store of knowledge which can help at the local (or larger) levels. Citizen science can also be used as part of a social movement and -- of course -- as a way to learn science. There are significant advantages beyond the helping role of citizens contributing to the general knowledge store. The first advantage is that learning about science helps people become better consumers of science information. This skill helps people to be better prepared to analyze and, possibly, refute scientific information that based on unfounded assumptions, that is improperly reasoned or flawed methodologically. Also, as indirect funders of scientific research (e.g. US taxpayers paid for the Internet's research and development) they would be better prepared to understand the implications of the research conducted with their tax dollars. The second advantage is that the act of actually conducting scientific research (especially when done collectively) helps build civic competence that can propel communities into a more proactive leadership role.

Some web sites that illustrate the concept:

All urls and verbiage from Fall / Winter 2001-2002 Wild Earth.

Geert Lovink mentioned "a network of sonar sensors around the Amsterdam airport to measure sound pollution and noise terror of incoming and outgoing airplanes. in real time." ( The web site is in Dutch.

That project is related to what I suggested for Seattle:

Many of you may recall recent EPA reports stating that Seattle has among the worst air pollution in the country. Without thinking about details (what else is new?) I wanted to suggest an interesting project for Seattle Community Network -- We could call it SPAM and it would stand for Seattle Public Air Monitoring. My thought is that we'd help install a reporting system based on cheap (?) air monitoring stations all around the city... (Is this possible??)

I've been reading about various "citizen science" projects including nest counting, frogwatch, monitoring air pollution, checking forests in New England, etc. etc. Seems like there should be a way to combine a SPAM project with SCN (maybe Seattle Wireless?), etc. into a semi-realtime view of our polluted metropolis.

Science Shops, another Dutch initiative, launched in the 1970s offer important background and motivation for this pattern. For more information on science shops, see SCIENCE SHOPS. Loka Institute National Committee on Community Research Centers., , Living Knowledge, International Science Shop Network, INTERACTS: Science Shops, , Science Shops in Europe: The Public as Stakeholder., General Secretariat Dutch Scienceshops, What is Community Research? What are "Science Shops?"

Links: Indicators, Power Research, Public Agenda.
Initial descriptive graphic: World Health Organization

People need to be engaged in conceiving and conducting scientific research in their own communities and beyond.

Pattern status: