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A new democracy in science: Citizen journalists, hackerspaces, and community-driven research

A new democracy in science: Citizen journalists, hackerspaces, and community-driven research

Nancy Mendoza is a science communicator and PR professional. She is currently working with the Society for Applied Microbiology and blogs at http://www.nancywmendoza.co.uk/blog


"There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

—Richard Shaull, drawing on Paulo Freire

For some years now, we in the science communication community have been preoccupied with ensuring that what we are doing is ‘PEST’ and not ‘PUS’. That is, rather than the old deficit model, where the ‘public’ are seen as empty vessels ready to receive knowledge, with which will come tacit acceptance of new ideas and technologies, we are looking to engage in useful conversations for the furtherance of scientific endeavour.

There has been a good deal of progress and some excellent expert-led top-down public engagement. But even in these most outstanding of qualitative studies, we are, in Peter Broks’ words, missing opportunities for “starting with the public to develop the science rather than starting with the science to develop the public”. And this is why I’ve been thinking about the role of user-generated content and data in bottom-up public engagement with science.

Citizen journalists

Perhaps the most established role for user-generated content is in the news media where “we have moved to a globalised, digitally-mediated, public sphere that can be characterised by the ‘abundance’ of platforms, media, tools, technologies and genres, allied with certain opportunities for at least some readers to become contributors”.

In fact, in 2009, UNESCO and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association published guidelines for the media on “Promoting User-generated Content and Media and Information Literacy”.

As news breaks, citizens on the ground, armed with consumer equipment (mobile phones, usually) and a now common level of information literacy, are providing the media with instant images, video, and audio. The days of the eye-witness account, sent to press for the next day’s early edition, are long gone. For example, when the Japanese tsunami, which wiped out the Fukushima nuclear plant, first hit, it was amateur footage that communicated the impact of this natural disaster as it was unfolding.

And in what I believe is still a unique initiative (in the UK at least), the Guardian opens up parts of its daily newslist for reader contributions prior to publication. Other outlets do offer opportunities for citizen reporters to bring their own stories e.g. CNN's iReport, Euronews' No Comment, and Al Jazeera's The Stream.

These developments are perhaps not surprising, given the 24 hour global news agenda and the availability of instant access live media at any time of day or night. But what does this mean for science?

Well, firstly, it means that anyone and everyone can get their message out. You don’t have to search far on YouTube to discover some dodgy health messages and claims, for example.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this makes science reporting more democratic, either. In fact, it is often less so. And it’s not because scientists don’t know how to use computers or aren’t online; they are. But in science we are not taught to value the currency of social and new media. We are sharing scientific knowledge via the traditional journal model of peer review and publication, which remains very distant from lay audiences, on the whole. And where scientists and scientific organisations are present in social media, it’s often with a view to transmitting certain information or messages from research – there isn’t a great deal of listening going on.

But if you do listen, you hear conversations about what matters to people. And if you’re interested in doing science that matters, you really ought to be interested in what people are doing and saying, because if there is one thing social media does extremely well, then that’s fill in the gaps where traditional media and education are lacking. People are asking their own questions, making their own reports and documentaries on current affairs, even doing their own offline experiments and sharing their methodologies, results and experiences online (e.g. http://wiki.london.hackspace.org.uk/view/Project:Biohacking and http://diybio.org/). You’ll even find people having a lot of fun with science!

DIY and citizen science

Hackerspaces, Makerspaces, TechShops, FabLabs, and others, are providing space and equipment with which anyone, for a small membership fee, can experiment, build, and innovate to their heart’s content.

At a recent Society of Biology event on dual-use bioscience, Daniel Grushkin, a freelance journalist and vice-president and co-founder of the Genspace community biology laboratory in New York, spoke about the role of citizen scientists. The chances of the next biological weapon coming from one of these community labs seems unlikely but Grushkin’s talk did make the point that, hungry for knowledge and progress, people want to get their hands dirty and get involved so that science happens to meet their needs and desires.

So, it follows that in science communication we seek to capitalise on this eagerness of our citizens. This is trendy right now, but it is certainly not new. As Peter Broks writes, in the early nineteenth century science was promoted to be accessible and participatory. Artisan botanists, he says, “claimed their right to participate in science not simply as interested members of the public but through their activities as botanists.”

There is a need, then, to be cognisant of the need to acknowledge participants for their time, knowledge, expertise, and willingness to develop and learn. In fact, critics of citizen science often view participants as free (for which, read: unpaid, coerced, or exploited) labour rather than scientists in their own right. And at a recent event on citizen science in schools, hosted by the British Science Association, speakers and participants were keen to emphasise the need for shared goals and objectives, and agreements about the current and ongoing use of data, particularly when it is provided or collected by citizens.

This discomfort, if explored more fully, is down, I believe, to a power imbalance. In many, if not most, of these projects, it is the researchers who set out the need for research, are usually in control of choosing the methods, and almost always instruct on the collection and/or analysis of data. The approach is top-down and the citizens are merely actors in a play written by the ‘experts’.

But there is a third, and a fourth, way to approach engagement with research where it needn’t be mostly citizen, as in the hackerspaces, or mostly researcher, as in Zooniverse, but both to differing degrees.

Public-driven research

Whether you’re funded by the taxpayer, by industry, charity, third sector, philanthropy, or crowd funding, you are going to want to do research that people find important. That seems to be a given, and one that scientists do well to cite in detail when applying for funding. But how to decide what’s important?

To a degree, scientists can decide for themselves, for they are citizens as much as they are professionals – and this is largely the process that goes on. But here we have a problem; the community of science does not reflect the community of the wider world in socioeconomic background, gender, ethnicity, or other important factors such as age (very young or very old), (single) parenting, and environment. When we talk about the under representation of women in science, for example, we aren’t just talking about a lack of women scientists, we are talking about a lack of science designed by women and/or for women. It is vital, therefore, to understand what hopes, fears, concerns and aspirations all people have for science.

The Citizens Science for Sustainability (SuScit) Project, which ended in 2009, was part of an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded programme called Sustainable Urban Environments. It is still one of the few examples I can find where a hard-to-reach community has been successfully engaged with a view to designing a programme of research that will be carried out by scientists as well as local projects that are owned and managed by local people, all for the benefit of that community and similar communities.

Interestingly, the citizen panels used multimedia approaches to share their thoughts and opinions with the EPSRC team, further demonstrating the role of multimedia presentation in public engagement with science.

I would be very interested to hear of other projects that have taken this type of approach, particularly the use of action research, to set research questions and design activities and collaborations within life and physical sciences.

Public-designed research

Perhaps the purest form of citizen science is that where there is a true collaboration between professional scientists and lay people. It is the citizens who set the questions, and in doing so are supported by scientists to design, conduct, and analyse experiments.

Hopefully most readers are already aware of the Blackawton bees where a group of primary school children worked with a scientist to design, run, and analyse their own investigation into how bumblebees choose which colour of flower to forage from. If not, please watch the following TED talk, where neuroscientist Beau Lotto and one of the primary school students involved, explain the project from start to finish.


This is a pretty perfect example of collaboration. In fact, the science produced by the school kids was of a standard to be published in the Royal Society’s journal, Biology Letters.

Theory into practice

Knowing all of this is one thing, putting it into practice is something else entirely. Not all topics lend themselves to user-generated data and content in the way that bees and urban environments do, right? And hardly anyone has the kind of cash required to do public dialogue activities.

Whilst that is all true, there are opportunities not to be missed:

  • Monitor online and social media for user-generated content relating to your topic area(s)
  • Know what hackers and makers are up to in your local area and/or relating to your scientific interests
  • When you have contact with members of the public e.g. at a science festival, think about the questions you are going to ask them, not just what you want to tell them
  • When you ask a question of a lay person, know what you are going to do with the answer and how that is going to inform future research
  • If you are thinking of involving citizens in the collection or analysis of data for your project, be sure to find out what’s in it for them
  • Use your networks to spot opportunities for citizen-led science projects e.g. in schools

I for one, am thinking of using video as a tool for discussion and debate. I’d like to ask lay people to interview each other on a given topic and use the results to build a permanent resource for scientists and future engagement activities.

I’d be really interested to know your thoughts and ideas on user-generated content for public engagement so please do use the comments section below.



Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action, by Peter Mayo, Macmillan, 1999, ISBN 1-85649-614-7, pg 5

The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice, Martin Weller, http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/DigitalScholar_9781849666275/acknowledgements-ba-9781849666275-0000023.xml;jsessionid=BAC17F259D6148ED273BB2254E785F11

R. Holliman, Telling science stories in an evolving digital media ecosystem: From communication to conversation and confrontation, Jcom 10(04) (2011) C04



Join the debate...


David Chester's picture

The subject of science of our society (as well as in society) is equally relevant. Yet macroeconomics seems not to have become a true science, and it remains only so in the "pseduo-science" sense. This is a shame because had the experts applied some systems-engineering type thoughts to the subject, as I have done, they would have discovered a whole new subject that is worthy of being called a true science!
My work has passed a number of stages of making formal assumptions and definitions (as many other theoretical sciences have done) and it now results in the construction of a model which is the simplist yet most complete to date, for showing of what macroeconomics consists and HOW IT WORKS!
Unlike earlier modelling results it properly includes the 3 factors of production as listed by Adam Smith in 1767 and since partly ignored. The diagram for this may be seen on Wikimedia Commons as: macroeconoimics DiagFuncMacroSyst.pdf
which needs enlarging to properly appreciate how the 6 role-playing entities and 19 double money and goods flows interact.
My research has led to a book to be published and I would like to share all of this information with you and that includes the younger members whose education would greatly benefit by this recent knowledge. There even is a mechanical interpretation too, for those who want to envisage a very practical kind of explanation.
Please get in touch with me for more details and information.

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