Making science accessible and inclusive

Darwin's tree of lifeThere’s an important distinction between the type of science historically carried out by unpaid citizen and what is currently described as citizen science. It centres on accessibility and inclusivity.

During Darwin’s era (1809 – 1888) and before, science was a pursuit for those with time and the finances to do so. Although we owe much to Darwin for his scientific observations of flora and fauna from his voyage on the Beagle, Silvertown (2008) points out that his primary role was as (unpaid) travel companion to the captain, Robert FitzRoy.

The reframing of amateur scientist to citizen scientist in part removes some of the negative connotations surrounding the word “amateur”. It also brings the scientific work carried out into a field that is steadily being better defined – mostly around the way in which citizen scientists participate in various scientific studies. In some respects, this also de-emphasizes the professional / non-professional dichotomy as most citizen science projects require close collaboration between scientists, programme managers and citizens.

A significant shift in who participates in citizen science makes the term citizen all the more pertinent – in its broadest sense, “citizen” just means “inhabitant”. The ability to participate in scientific projects has broadened – in a UK survey of earthworms (Bone et al., 2012), yes earthworms, there was much higher participation by disadvantaged communities than expected – more than 400 surveys of the total 3330+ surveys overall. Engaging these communities was a focus of the project. And it’s exciting that ordinary folk can get excited about earthworms.

To make science accessible and inclusive, I come back to engagement. I know from my own experience that this seemingly straightforward term is understood in many different ways, and can end up merely as consultation, or just imparting (yet more) information. I use engage, engaging and engagement a lot in my writing, I freely admit to that. But for many – scientists included, there needs to be more “engagement in engagement” in order for productive and meaningful dialogues to take place that truly do bring people together, meaningfully.

Silvertown J 2009. A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 467-471.

Bone et al., 2012. Public participation in soil surveys: Lessons from a pilot study in England. Environmental Science and Technology 46: 3687−3696

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