Citizen science, the active participation of non-professional scientists in academic research, is gaining momentum worldwide. Lay people work together with scientist to classify galaxies1, to explore the origins and diversity of languages2, keep tabs on flu outbreaks3 and determine conditions for health aging4. Citizen science not only quenches man’s natural thirst for knowledge, but also helps advancing general scientific literacy and bridges the gap between an increasingly critical public and academic research. In this way, it reflects science’s overall change towards more openness, transparency and societal responsibility.
Citizen science has attracted the interest of professional researchers at universities, of citizens activities groups, and policy bodies alike. Hence, citizen science projects are emerging both outside and within academia and in all kinds of disciplines ranging from the humanities and the social sciences to the natural sciences and medicine. Communities are mustering citizens to develop knowledge and strategies for important issues such as air pollution5. In fact, citizen science is an important part of the EU drive for open science, especially in the context of its program Science with and for Society6.
Over the last ten years highly productive collaborations between different disciplines and institutions in creative and novel interdisciplinary projects have developed. Multi-purpose platforms at several universities (such as citizen cyberlab7, zooniverse8, extreme citizen science9 or Open Systems10) extend the range and possibilities of citizen science projects.
Citizen science offers the possibility to expand research activities beyond the limitations of the ivory tower. It can make science more rigorous, encompassing, and creative by incorporating expertise beyond academia. Why should we disregard a farmer’s expertise in successfully growing crops or the patient’s knowledge about her own disease? Science profits if all stakeholders can contribute their respective strengths.
Hence, expanding research activities to include citizens can be very productive. And continuing to restrict funds and research activities exclusively to universities and other traditional research institutions alone will only deepen the gap between academia and the general population. However, many crucial questions are yet unanswered: Will citizen science result in a new distribution of research activities and the respective funding? Will traditional research institutions face an increasing competition for funding from activity groups, citizen science societies and other stakeholders? Would a shift of funding undermine the quality of research?
Therefore it is important to act thoughtfully and responsibly now and discuss how to reach a productive equilibrium that makes the most out of science and of citizen science in particular. Standstill simply is not an option.
What can be done to position citizen science optimally in the years to come? We need a concise, relatable, and convincing vision of citizen science without losing sight of scientific integrity and rigour. Citizen science needs to incorporate lay people, academic scientists and citizen science – not by introducing bureaucratic barriers, but in a simple and well structured way. These are the main ingredients:
Universities (along with major funding agencies, like the SNSF) must capitalize on these developments and actively shape them. They should support researchers in their citizen science activities, for instance by providing adequate platforms and dedicated grants. Although citizen science projects may remain a limited fraction of the academic research activities, the societal relevance of many of its topics (health, environment, biodiversity) will attract attention by the public and policy bodies. It is therefore imperative that universities bring their expertise and standards to citizen science. Their professional knowledge, their experience with government agencies, funding organizations and especially the collaborations of different universities at national and international levels add pronounced advantages for carrying out projects at a university.
Policy makers must ensure that citizen science projects funded by public money keep a high quality. Requiring a set of guidelines and regulations to make sure that citizen science projects are carried out with strong attention to quality, sustainability, citizens’ participation and transparency as well as ethical and legal considerations.
Citizen science organizations or other groups11 outside the traditional academic research institutions could act as intermediaries between universities and citizens. With their possibilities to recruit and engage citizens, they are best suited to address the difficult build-up of a community of citizens.
There should be a coordination between these three stakeholders (universities, citizens and citizen science organisations) in which the projects are optimized for the competences of each stakeholder.
Public and private research funding organizations should consider funding of citizen science projects even if they are based primarily outside traditional academic institutions.
Citizen science is a growing and its growth is both well motivated and to be welcomed – not least because the role of citizens in research is an important aspect of the general discussion on the position of universities in society. Universities and other traditional research organizations, should recognize this and therefore support the efforts of their researchers to work with citizens. By providing platforms and a collaborative net with the other stakeholders they can best serve the interest of researchers and citizens alike. While universities (and politics) are well advised to keep the lead in research and in terms of recognition by political bodies, an active, visible and influential citizen science, possibly synchronized with similar activities by the other stakeholders mentioned, is a strong ally.
Daniel Wyler is a theoretical physicist and the former vice-rector at University of Zurich; he is also the main author of LERU Guidelines12 concerning citizen science published last year.
Servan Grüninger holds a Master’s degree in Biostatistics from the University of Zurich and is president of reatch, a grassroots ideas hatchery for science, technology, and society.