Science has been an academics-only business for much longer than necessary. Citizens were considered as mere recipients of science (if at all), and their role in the actual scientific process was never really considered. However, the recently conceived term ‘Citizen Science’ (CS) has become a prominent buzzword amidst policy-makers’ growing determination to strengthen citizens’ involvement. CS is increasingly gaining ground as a tool for scientists and universities to prove their value to their communities and to attain the ‘holy grail’ of societal impact.
But what’s meant exactly by ‘Citizen Science’? To answer this question, YERUN exchanged views with Thomas Kaarsted, Director of the Citizen Science Knowledge Centre of the University of Southern Denmark and a real CS ambassador. Kaarsted resorts to the Golumbic model, which defines CS along three main dimensions: inclusion, contribution and reciprocality. While the first two themes refer to the involvement of citizens in the scientific process and data collection, ‘reciprocality’ refers to science communication, an integral part of CS.
Analysing these three dimensions allows us to identify obstacles and opportunities of CS. “There are two main challenges currently standing in the way between researchers and a full achievement of CS: basic infrastructures and research support” says Kaarsted. “As things are now, citizens’ involvement is mainly up to researchers, who very often have a genuine will to engage with citizens, but cannot always rely on support infrastructures helping them in their project (inclusion and contribution), nor do they necessarily possess those skills needed to communicate science effectively (reciprocality)”. The situation is slowly evolving, as shown by the steady emergence of both centres and ‘community manager’ figures supporting researchers in the understanding and uptake of CS. Nevertheless, the road is still long and requires concerted advocacy.
For YERUN, citizens’ involvement is key. CS can be a very strong force for reaching a dual objective: increasing public recognition of- and restoring faith in science, at a historical moment when this is needed more than ever. It is encouraging to see many CS initiatives emerging across YERUN, such as at SDU, DCU and UAntwerp.
UAntwerp’s CurieuzeNeuzen believes in the power of large-scale citizen science to tackle unsolved scientific issues. “By involving thousands of participants, you enlarge your data set and it becomes easier to map complex phenomena like air quality or heat and drought” says Prof. Filip Meysman from UAntwerp’s Biology Department. “We want to turn abstract and broad terms like ‘heat’ and ‘drought’ into something tangible, by literally bringing it into the participant’s home environment. From their first encounter with the project, citizens feel the urgency to participate because this gives them an insight into something that concerns them, their loved ones and their living environment.”
With a view to strengthening the role of young institutions in bridging science and citizens, YERUN decided to give CS a prominent role in its new strategy 2021-2025. There is a unique opportunity to seize, considering the significant attention that science has received in the past year, and we should make sure that this dialogue becomes action.
Article written by: Chiara Colella (YERUN Strategic Communication and Policy Officer)
Special thanks to:
- Thomas Kaarsted, Director of the SDU Citizen Science Knowledge Centre;
- Prof. Filip Meysman, from UAntwerp’s Biology Department
- Sanne de Rooij, UAntwerp's CurieuzeNeuzen Communications Officer
The Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN) brings together young, like-minded, and research-focused higher education institutions from across Europe, with a view to raise their voice through strategic representation, increase their international visibility, and strengthen their cooperation opportunities in areas of mutual interest and benefit.