Citizen science is defined as an emerging trend in the ways of doing science. Efforts draw on citizens’ involvement in research tasks. This may range from identifying a problem that needs solving, defining research, data collection, data interpretation and transforming these interpretations into actions.
This way of understanding scientific research has grown exponentially in the past decade. It has grown everywhere on our planet. It is also true that the ways in which citizen science is practiced varies greatly in each context and has focused on a variety of themes, even if it needs to further expand to social themes. In any case, citizen science has reached a level of maturity. It is becoming one of the pillars of open science that aims at achieving greater accessibility and transparency to make knowledge truly democratic and, from a more strategic perspective, citizen science is also considered an important way to explore new missions and new roles for universities in the future.
I do not wish, however, to go into the challenges faced by universities. Given the mission of this space for opinion, and in the interest of our readers, I would like to think beyond the academic field. In many cases, citizen science carries a transformative ambition, generally in social and socio-environmental areas. Viewed this way, its links to the social third sector and non-profit organizations offer a huge potential and it becomes a logical and natural option. In fact, citizen science per se has already learned that there is a need for a greater social commitment, and we see experiences where academic research groups enter into robust collaboration with actors from civil society. Organized communities and citizens can find new ways to argue for actions and policies with citizen science in a broad array of topics such as sustainability, accessing rights, or improved governance.
However, we are still lacking meeting points to consolidate the more social side of citizen science where the non-profit sector can truly feel comfortable and increase its participation. We lack more crosscutting training programmes for researchers, university students, project managers, civil society organizations, primary, secondary and baccalaureate teachers or any social group that would like to start citizen science projects or simply to be part of an ongoing citizen science project. There is still the need to explain what citizen science is to most social actors and to be more convincing about the potential it has to offer as a way to develop scientific research in the academic field, but also as a cooperation strategy between civil society and universities for science to have a greater social impact.
The Universitat de Barcelona, together with the Taula del Tercer Sector have recently completed a certified training course on citizen science that drew the attention of more than 140 persons. I must admit I wasn’t expecting such a large interest, especially when our intention was to highlight the social commitment that citizen science must embrace. However, this is just a first step in the field of citizen science. With this modest effort, we are also developing new open digital resources through an Erasmus+ project called Citizen Science NOW posted on the web ub.edu/ciència-ciutadana. Also, through the TORCH project that is geared towards potential transformation of European research universities we developed an in-person training with more than 20 speakers of very different profiles to bring together 9 citizen science projects and share experiences, success stories and challenges in a generous and self-critical way.
Bringing together a diversity of discourses has been essential to open a broad discussion on citizen science and on how it may offer spaces for collaboration with civil organizations. Delving deeper into key aspects to develop citizen science projects is therefore essential to have an impact on concrete and specific aspects. The first of such aspects is the joint creation of citizen science projects where non-profit organizations can establish a framework and questions for research and interpret the data collected from their perspective and based on their experience. The second aspect is managing and bringing together the participating communities and provide more horizontal spaces placing the concerns and issues of people in a vulnerable situation at the centre.
A third relevant aspect is the adoption of tools and protocols to enable citizen participation in data collection. This effort means reshaping scientific methods or combining several methods to understand data collection as a way to get participants to reflect and gain a greater awareness of the problem that needs to be studied. Managing the data collected is another important aspect. Citizen science can lead to interesting new data for the third sector and the way they interpret this data may be very different from the technical interpretation done by the academia. The ethical and social inclusion dimensions is the fifth basic element. Participants’ privacy must be safeguarded, especially when working with persons in a vulnerable position, and we must be inclusive when selecting the profiles of participants.
Last, but not least, the sixth and final aspect is that the third sector can support citizen science to generate actionable knowledge that will help social organizations in their advocacy and will improve public policies of the administrations. As mentioned already, citizen science has reached its level of maturity. Now it is time for third sector organizations to embrace citizen science. We must welcome this at universities and take a firm commitment to boos and promote this. We must stand committed for the future of society and for the future of science.