Democratizing science: the rise of Citizen Science in fostering Open and Responsible Research

27th Mar 2024

Participatory and citizen science is taking opennes to the next level…

Open science and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) are the part of the scientific community's response to this signficant societal transformation.

Even before the creation of universities and research institutes as bastions of knowledge production (as well as aiming to act as THE major authoritative social actor in this realm), science was not open. Think of the early days of the Royal Society in London in the mid 17th century. While inside Gresham college in London, a group of educated gentelmen discussed the creation of the Royal Society, the people who were passing outside where not well educated – almost 50% of men and 90% of women were illiterate at this period.

The term scientist was created by William Whewell in 1830 as an inclusive act while describing Mary Somerville’s work and recognising her contribution to science. With the growth of Big Science in the 20th century, the public found itself shut out of the scientific world – with exclusive and expensive journal, data that is only accessible within university networks, and research funding that is only open to universities and research institutions, but not to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or individual researchers. Yet, the public did not remain the same – while in the early part of the 20th century primary education became the norm, by the early part of the 21st century, more and more young people went to tertiary (higher) education. The European Union, for example, set a target for its member states that by 2030, at least 45% of their young people (25-34) will obtain higher education qualification (with some coutnries already approaching 60%). Such highly education population is capable for much more than passively receiving the knowledge produces by scientists. In a way, it was the growth in teaching of the same scientists and institutions that open up the question: “who has the right to produce, access, and use scientific knowledge?”. Add to this the growth of the Internet and the ease with which information can be access, the growth in leisure time, the prolifiration of mobile phone and their advances as sensing devices (capable of sensing audio, taking picture, identifying movement and so on) and you have a set of ingerdients that are calling for a transformation in the way that scientists and society work together. 

Open science and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) are the part of the scientific community’s response to this signficant societal transformation. They are calling for much more soceital engagement in the design of scientific questions and in the execuation and use of scientific research. 

Take, for example, the call for scientists to publish in open access (meaning that there are no charges on the readers of scientific articles) or release research results as open data (meaning that any one can reuse the data for different purposes). There is no question that these practices are making life easier for scientists, but arguably the articles and the data were shared between scientists before. Yet, for the wider public, accessing the papers or the data was near impossible before open science practices became commonplace. 

Participatory and citizen science is taking this opennes to the next level, and is opening up opportunities for members of the public to take an active role in research projects. This might be in the form of allowing scientists to run sophisticated models on their computers, when they are not using it; classifying images and audio recording to assist scientists in creating robust datasets that are used for machine learning; or going out and recording observation of nature to support biodiversity monitoring and the risk to endengered species. It can also take the form of members of the public coming up with their own research questions, collecting data and analysing it, and then collaborating with scientists to address the issues that they have identified. 

Many research funders and international bodies recognise the value of citizen scienc as an integral part of open science and responsible research and innovation. The European Commission made citizen science an integral part of the Horizon Europe programme, and there are now many projects that have an active citizen science componenet. The European Research Council (ERC), who fund the research at the frontiers of knowledge, dedicated its annual event in 2022 to citzien science, attracting attention of over 1000 scientists and decision makers. Elsewhere, the UNESCO recommendations on Open Science, endorsed in 2022 by over 190 countries, see citizen science as an integral part of scientific research and innovation. These are only few examples of the transofrmation towards supporting citizen science that is occuring acrossthe world or science, research, and innovation. 

This transformation calls for the need to train researchers in how to implement such projects successfully, and new training opportunities for this purpose are created – for example, within the PATTERN project.