Research & Innovation

Citizen Science: democratising knowledge to build the society of the new millennium

The term “citizen science” first came into use in the nineties, and since then it has been gaining popularity and recognition. It is a blurry concept with no precise definition and which has been used to describe a variety of experiences, but it broadly refers to different ways of actively involving the general public in scientific research; a practice whereby scientists and citizens work in collaboration to produce new knowledge.

In what follows, we will try to clarify the contours around the definition of citizen science. However, we will not do so using a closed definition, but will instead take a panoramic, open approach. An approach that eschews the need to classify and that, therefore, does not seek to identify what citizen science is and is not. It is an approach that instead prefers to ask questions and elicit answers.

Hence, the first question we must ask, and also the most important, is why citizen science? What reasons explain and justify its emergence? Why is this term so interesting and what can we expect from it? These questions can be approached from both an instrumental and a substantive perspective.

On an instrumental level, first of all, citizen science is described as a new way of accessing knowledge. As opposed to traditional technocratic approaches, citizen science is the manifestation of the so-called democratisation of knowledge. This focus challenges the paradigm of control and technical confidence that was so characteristic of the Enlightenment. Historically, we have witnessed much turbulence and devastating conflicts, but we never stopped viewing the world from the certainty of knowing how to lead it into the future and the conviction that, moreover, this future represents linear improvements with respect to the past. Some authors have defined this enlightened scenario as the paradigm of order or, using the terminology of the natural sciences, the Newtonian paradigm.

This is the paradigm of the industrial revolution and of technocratic rationality; a kind of knowledge that pursues the laws that order the world, making it recognisable, predictable and controllable. The paradigm of modernity, which has endowed pedagogues with the confidence to know what to teach and how to do it, sociologists with the security of knowing social realities on which to work, doctors with the skills and tools to heal us, biologists with the knowledge to understand life, and economists with the methodologies to ensure that financial exchanges will work. But this world of convictions has not withstood the turn of the millennium.

Today, doubts and uncertainties prevail, both in the natural and in the social sciences. Regarding the former, so apparently immune to insecurities, we have witnessed the fissures in Newtonian mechanics caused by the theories of chaos, relativity and quantum movement. These are new approaches to complexity and the impossibility of controlling an excessively multifaceted and unpredictable reality. In the social sciences, following efforts to incorporate the methodologies and formulation of laws by natural scientists (Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, for example), we have rediscovered the limits of ordered knowledge and the perplexity of false certainties.

We therefore start from the need for the sciences to not only recognise complexity but, more importantly, to incorporate it in the way they analyse the world. The issues that we study today have been defined as problems of irreducible complexity. Issues that cannot be addressed using instruments of simplification, specialisation and control but, on the contrary, whose complexity and uncertainty needs to be assumed. Doing so requires the incorporation of new perspectives and for diverse voices to be heard. And that also includes those coming from the people themselves. This openness to plural ways of generating knowledge was masterfully summarised by democracy theorist Benjamin Barber:

“The author of human language, thought, philosophy, science, and art as well as of law, convention, right, authority, and freedom is not Man but men.”(Barber, Strong Democracy, 2004)

In this passage from the singular to the plural, we find the main instrumental justification of citizen science, but substantive reasons are also relevant. Thus, we find a second reason for citizen science in its ability to foster effective transfer of knowledge from research institutions to society as a whole. The inclusion of the civilian population in research, activities that are traditionally the reserve of professional scientists, ensures that both the research agenda and its results are properly addressed at the community. That is to say, at improving the living conditions of society in general. Citizen science is an antidote to the endogamous tendencies of research institutions, which not only tend to monopolise knowledge but also the reasons that justify the objects and interests of research. Citizen science means breaking away from the old metaphor of the ivory tower that surrounds the academic world.

Citizen science, therefore, becomes a bridge between science and society, as well as a useful tool to influence the public policies that must shape our society. In the White Paper on citizen science published by the EU in 2014, this idea is explicitly expressed as follows:

“Citizen science, through its potential to bridge science, society and policy, is in a unique position to play a role helping our governments and administrations to make sensitive policies in relation to these societal challenges. However, citizen science does not yet live up to this potential. While being increasingly on the agenda, citizen science remains at the margins of both science as well as policy -for many also a black box with unclear benefits and challenges.”

Based on the reasons put forward to explain citizen science -and which are reflected in the title of this article: Democratising knowledge to build the society of the new millennium- the EU’s own definition of citizen science takes on a more precise meaning, where it is viewed as “public participation in scientific research activities whereby the people make an active contribution to science through their own intellectual effort, knowledge, tools and resources.” Thus, citizen science involves the “participation of the general public in research activities” (democratising the generation of knowledge), but also “help for our governments and administrations” which, through their public policies, must deal with modern-day “social challenges.”

Certainly, this approach to citizen science seems panoramic and opens up the possibility of a wide range of practices and activities. On the one hand, because it can be applied to a diverse range of disciplinary areas and, on the other, because citizen participation can occur at different levels, such as observation of the reality being studied, the approach to the problem, the formulation of hypotheses, methodological design, data analysis and the drawing of conclusions. At each of these moments, collaboration with the people can generate a wealth of benefits, as long as rigour and good communication are guaranteed between the various actors who now take the lead in scientific research. Rigour, because we must not forget that the results need to be evaluated pursuant to the criteria of scientific production, and good communication because this is crucial when it comes to involving citizens, defining the roles of the different actors and, above all, guaranteeing the fluid dialogue and trust required for the democratisation of knowledge described earlier.

Citizen science is still a recent concept and its evolution needs to be carefully monitored. However, it is a concept that fits the increasingly more complex, volatile reality of the 21st century. It is in this context that we must understand its development and analyse its practices, a context in which collaboration will replace competition, where dialogue will prevail over monologue and where horizontal communication will be more fruitful than vertical specialisation. In fact, we could write that last sentence in the present tense and thus appreciate the full potential and ambition of citizen science. 

  • Quim Brugué

    Joaquim Brugué

    Full Professor of Political Science and Administration at the University of Girona (UdG)

    Quim Brugué holds a degree in Economic Sciences (UAB), a Diploma in Data Analysis for Social Sciences (Essex University) and a PhD in Political Science and Administration (UAB). Research stays at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. At the university level, he has been degree coordinator, vice-dean of academic organization, coordinator of the master's degree in Public Management and director of the doctoral program. He has developed his teaching and research activity in the fields of public management, local government, democratic innovation and public policy analysis. Between 2004 and 2008 he was general director of Citizen Participation in the Government of the Generalitat of Catalonia, and between 2009 and 2014 director of the Institute of Government and Public Policies (IGOP). He has also chaired the Spanish Association of Political Science (AECPA) between 2015 and 2017.

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