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Fermin Serrano, Ibercivis Foundation

To date, citizen science has focused on top-down science communication. But as the exemplar of astronomy highlights, amateur enthusiasts can make significant contributions. It’s time to capture this potential, to expand the scope and excellence of research, says Fermin Serrano

Ask anyone in research or management in Europe about citizen science and it very likely that the answer will be framed in the context of dissemination of research findings. But despite the importance of communicating science to the public, this view is far from painting the complete picture.

In a green paper published towards the end of last year, the Socientize project, of which I am coordinator, defined citizen science as, “General public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort, or surrounding knowledge, or with their tools and resources.”

The huge number of computing devices and the connectivity available in all corners of Europe, combined with the similarly distributed expertise of amateurs and enthusiasts, now points to the potential to systematically apply these resources, to drive a new wave of research – which upholds the requirement for excellence in science, whilst also opening up its practice to promote greater public understanding and engagement.

Today millions of mobile phones and computers belonging to members of the general public connect daily to citizen science projects. Indeed, the cost of building such a scattered and pervasive network of sensors and computing nodes, operating around the clock, would be prohibitive. While more and more amateurs and volunteers are contributing to science by joining different projects and experiments, it is now time to move on from the current ad hoc approach and foster an intellectual revolution with students and future scientists, by highlighting how these tools can change the way we address scientific questions, and how we can deal with problems in a different way.

Collective intelligence

Understanding, predicting and capturing the collective intelligence of the general public may be considered a complex problem in itself, but cracking it would help scientists to confront other global challenges. Unpaid and passionate people are ready to help in their free time to generate and analyse data; many disruptive ideas come from unlikely sources and may lead to innovation or unexpected findings.

Beyond the example of astronomy, there are a growing number of cases where the power of virtual environments has speeded up multidisciplinary scientific collaborations involving professional scientists around the world, leading to new discoveries. So let’s increase the size of these groups and the diversity of the contributors, allowing more democratic and inclusive engagement.

I am not only talking about engaging the general public in the scientific process, but also in science policy. Despite advances over the last few decades, the practice of framing science policy and how it relates to society at large, does not match the needs of the research world. Citizen science is playing the role of increasing participation and establishing a two-way channel, that allows the public to express its views, whilst also building awareness of the process of science – and of its limitations.

Active involvement

The Socientize project is spreading these messages by supporting active involvement in research projects while promoting policy recommendations. In November 2013, we published the Green Paper on Citizen Science, which can be found on the website, along with listings of the open experiments we are running currently.

The green paper sets the scene for further – open – discussions, to generate greater endorsement and feedback for the preparation of a ‘White Paper on Citizen Science’ that we plan to publish during 2014. The website will be open for contributions and comments from 17th February to 27th March. I encourage readers to raise their hands and to engage in the refinement and formulation of policies.

Here are some of the proposed actions for the Citizen Science Roadmap in Europe:

• Identify, catalogue and align funding programmes related to citizen science; develop a strategic agenda and promote synergies between EU and national funding mechanisms, with the aim of optimising the individual strengths of every region.

• Promote structured partnerships and international networks of cooperation among citizen science institutions from different regions, including both excellent and lower-performing research institutions, to spread best practice and support the scaling up of successful regional initiatives, to further validate models.

• Enhance public debate and decision-making processes about science challenges and policies, give more publicity to the funded projects and increase the participation of the public in meetings about funding programmes.

• Promote democratic governance of science via public engagement and debate between policy makers, researchers, innovators and the general public, in a structured channel for feedback and open criticism. Consider an organisational structure to facilitate general public evaluation of science policies and public funded projects

• Reform researcher evaluation and reputation systems, and definition of incentives for interaction with citizens, such as recognition in appraisal and tenures.

In order to facilitate low-cost excellence based on the engagement and participation of citizens, there should be an association of networked projects, to create a pan-European partnership around citizen science, and to share best practices. There are already some relevant international institutions such as the Ibercivis Foundation that offers Citizen Science as a Service. This initiative, established 6 years ago with shared resources from several research centres in Spain and Portugal, provides shared services to the community, improving the efficiency and efficacy of projects, whist promoting the research of specialised and skilled teams. The Foundation is also fostering dialogue between citizens and the policy makers.

The advantage of citizen science is that no big centre or large infrastructure is needed. Relatively small investments are producing an increasing number of high impact publications. At the same time the culture of science – and its practice – is changing.

Fermin Serrano is a researcher at the University of Zaragoza, Spain, Coordinator of the Socientize project and Executive Director of the Ibercivis Foundation.

Published in Science Business