Thinking critically about citizen science

Tom Wakeford News

Citizen science, as we define it in the book People’s Knowledge (Practical Action, 2016), is a form of research covering a spectrum of levels of people’s involvement, from merely contributing to research wholly organised by professional scientists (thus tending towards scientism) at one end, to people being in charge of forming the questions that are asked, how they are answered and what is done with them (sometimes called or participatory action research) on the other.

During the last decade the term ‘citizen science’ has become a popular rallying cry for a new breed of science communication, particularly in the West. Its proponents often give the impression that citizens will be empowered by their involvement in the collection of scientific data. However, the bulk of recent citizen science initiatives have generally continued to follow the logic of traditional natural science in that they:

  1. analyse problems within a simple hypothesis-testing paradigm, often followed by a process that gives the impression of being a two-way dialogue with citizens, but is largely an exercise in transmitting information from professionally-trained experts to the public, or using them as unpaid collectors or processors of data;
  2. promulgate a belief that problems are solved by specialisation and a simple division between ‘scientists’ and ‘citizens’
  3. assume an unproblematic relationship between the ‘citizen’ on the one hand, and institutions, (such as the state, research organisations and corporations) on the other. In reality, citizen science initiatives can risk making existing institutions more powerful at the expense of the interests of those who have historically had their knowledge ignored.

Exploring concepts such as epistemic injustice and cognitive justice (see Glossary in People’s Knowledge), can help us understand the dangers and potential benefits of a range of existing, and potential future citizen science initiatives.

People’s Knowledge has produced an initial reading list for those interested in critical perspectives on citizen science. We welcome comments and feedback from all perspectives.

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