The Professionalisation of Citizen Science

Earlier this month, a network of universities in Switzerland opened a consultation on a draft of a document laying out Standards for Citizen Science (CS). These standards are intended to be non-binding guidelines for “academic researchers, their institutions and the funding bodies, with principles and guidelines how to run CS projects in the academic setting”. The hope is that organisers of CS projects will voluntarily comply with these guidelines to ensure that their projects respect the highest scientific standards and thus are considered trustworthy by funders, participants and the public at large. If the Swiss initiative is successful, the standards developed by this group, although not legally binding, will acquire de facto authoritative status on the basis of the guidance they provide for funders, participants, professionals. This will be an important step in the professionalisation of CS, along with the establishment of associations such as the the European CS Association, and the interest and support of policy makers for CS projects (i.e. the SOCIENTIZE initiative of the European Commission). This process of professionalisation is likely to foster the trust of both publics and professional researchers in CS methods, and to catalyse up the use of CS in“traditional” research institutions and settings.

The draft guidelines that are available on the website of ETH Zurich are commendable for the breadth of participation that they envisage for citizen scientists, and for the ambition of providing a “framework for CS as robust science rather than as public engagement”. In particular, as the document states,

citizens might possibly contribute to topic selection and development, research design, execution, dissemination of results and funding. Expertise of CS shall be used in the best possible way implying flat hierarchies and the possibility of citizen scientists to take over responsibilities if they wish, once encouraged.

Many learned societies were born out of associations of enthusiastic (and resourceful) amateurs, and it is possible, in principle, that professionally-led CS will give birth to forms of “amateur science”. Moreover, professionalisation need not be incompatible with the more ambitious aims of CS, such as, for example, making science more democratic. But the relationship between these goals is not without tensions. Professionalisation and standardisation run the risk of deepening the gap between top-down projects where professional researchers seek to enlist “lay” people in CS projects designed by the former on the one hand, and bottom-up CS projects initiated by citizens on the other, who may seek to challenge hegemonic truths and be critical of mainstream assumptions of scientific research.

The development of standards for CS will not help to bridge the gap between these two types of CS. It may even sharpen the division between institutionally-driven CS projects that conform with hegemonical ideas of good science (including good ethics), and the more democratically innovative and institutionally disruptive initiatives driven by those who are disenchanted with “mainstream” institutionalised science (for one possible example, see Alessandro Delfanti on biohackers).

One possible way out of this dilemma is to conclude that perhaps the dichotomy between these two types of CS ought not to be dissolved. In that case, it would make absolute sense to develop standards for CS targeted only at top-down CS projects run by institutions. Projects that programmatically situate themselves outside the professionally-drawn boundaries of what count as good science, in contrast, may want to have their own standards (and they may be much more in flux).

A note of caution pertains to values, and value-laden imaginaries. Science develops on the basis of human preferences, desires and aspirations, and shapes part of how our world will look like tomorrow. The aim of rendering science more democratic – which is one of the aims quoted in the draft standards for CS – entails, at the very least, the deliberative idea that citizens should be involved in the discursive process and in executive decision making, in both science and science policy. Firmly embedding CS within the imaginary of an innovation based knowledge society, as in the draft of the policy paper that accompanies the standards, contradict the aim of making science more democratic, because such imaginary largely originates from pundits, policy makers and industry.

In conclusion, it is important to keep in mind that the democratisation of science has never meant that professional and “lay” expertise should be employed in the same manner and for the same purposes. Instead, the fight for the democraticisation of science has been about taking seriously the ideas, values, inputs of “lay” citizens without denying the saliency of the peculiar division of labour that characterises science. This is certainly compatible with top down and professional-led CS projects, especially if they are committed to “flat hierarchies” between professional scientists and “citizen scientists”. However, in order for participation to be as deep and inclusive as possible, we should acknowledge and embrace the wide variety of ways in which citizens engage, in their own terms, with science. In addition to framing guidelines and standards for CS, we ought to keep observing what happens at the margins of established institutions, where citizens criticise, appropriate, discuss and re-interpret how science is and should be done.

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