Science to the People

David Lang on how citizen science bridges the gap between science and society: “It’s hard to find a silver lining in the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The striking images of jugs of brown water being held high in protest are a symbol of institutional failure on a grand scale. It’s a disaster. But even as questions of accountability and remedy remain unanswered, there is already one lesson we can take away: Citizen science can be used as a powerful tool to build (or rebuild) the public’s trust in science.

Because the other striking image from Flint is this: Citizen-scientists  sampling and testing their own water, from their homes and neighborhoods,and reporting the results as scientific data. Dr. Marc Edwards is the VirginiaTech civil engineering professor who led the investigation into the lead levels in Flint’s water supply, and in a February 2016 interview with TheChronicle of Higher Education, he gave an important answer about the methods his team used to obtain the data: “Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen-scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community,we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.”

It’s a subtle but important message: The community is rising up and rallying by using science, not by reacting to it. Other scientists trying to highlight important issues and influence public opinion would do well to take note, because there’s a disconnect between what science reports and what the general public chooses to believe. For instance, 97 percent of scientists agree that the world’s climate is warming, likely due to human activities. Yet only 70 percent of Americans believe that global warming is real. Many of the most important issues of our time have the same, growing gap between scientific and societal consensus: genetically modified foods, evolution,vaccines are often widely distrusted or disputed despite strong, positive scientific evidence…..

The good news is that we’re learning. Citizen science — the growing trend of involving non-professional scientists in the process of discovery — is proving to be a supremely effective tool. It now includes far more than birders and backyard astronomers, its first amateur champions. Over the past few years,the discipline has been gaining traction and popularity in academic circles too. Involving groups of amateur volunteers is now a proven strategy for collecting data over large geographic areas or over long periods of time.Online platforms like Zooniverse have shown that even an untrained human eye can spot anomalies in everything from wildebeest migrations to Martiansurfaces. For certain types of research, citizen science just works.

While a long list of peer-reviewed papers now backs up the efficacy of citizen science, and a series of papers has shown its positive impact on students’ view of science, we’re just beginning to understand the impact of that participation on the wider perception of science. Truthfully, for now,most of what we know so far about its public impact is anecdotal, as in the work in Flint, or even on our online platform for explorers, OpenExplorer….It makes sense that citizen science should affect public perception of science.The difference between “here are the results of a study” and “please help

It makes sense that citizen science should affect public perception of science.The difference between “here are the results of a study” and “please help us in the process of discovery” is profound. It’s the difference between a rote learning moment and an immersive experience. And even if not everyone is getting involved, the fact that this is possible and that some members of a community are engaging makes science instantly more relatable. It creates what Tim O’Reilly calls an “architecture of participation.” Citizen scientists create the best interface for convincing the rest of the populace.

A recent article in Nature argued that the DIY biology community was, in fact, ahead of the scientific establishment in terms of proactively thinking about the safety and ethics of rapidly advancing biotechnology tools. They had to be. For those people opening up community labs so that anyone can come and participate, public health issues can’t be pushed aside or dealt with later. After all, they are the public that will be affected….(More)”