SpotOn London: Public participation in research

November 12, 2012

The plan was two speakers in London, one participating online, from New Orleans. Didn’t quite go like that, as Cindy Regalado (@CwB_London) had travel problems and was forced to participate from the security queue in Madrid airport. Truly, she did – her phone went through X-ray while she was listening. With no webcam on the conference centre computer, Shannon Dosemagen (@sdosemagen) had only a sound feed, although we in London saw her perfectly. Might have been smoother if my skype-ineptitude had been less evident; I had the two of them online at the start but then Cindy dropped out. If I tried to add her back to the conversation, I lost Shannon! And if I got Shannon back, I lost Cindy! None the less, both coped wonderfully and made a fabulous contribution. As, indeed, did the audience – I’m so grateful they stuck with it.

Enough of my technical maladroitness; on to the session content. The idea came from a suggestion on the SpotOn wiki that there should be ‘something about Citizen Science’. I thought there might be some momentum in moving the discussion along a bit, focussing less on Citizen Science and more on Public Participation in Research. My interest is in open science and how it can support public engagement but along the way I have become interested in questions of how it could also support co-creation and collaboration by professional scientists and members of the public. I’ve been following the ExCiteS project, of which Cindy is a member, for a while, so was pleased when she agreed to join in. And Cindy introduced Shannon, who is a member of the Public Laboratory for Technology and Science. This gave the session plan a nice trajectory from philosophical questions of what we mean by ‘public participation’ (me), to working with communities (Cindy), to issues of participatory research (Shannon).

 (At this point, I should  admit that the strain of speaking, discussion-moderating, twitter-feed-following and question-listening all at the same time meant something had to give. I’m sorry that something was taking full notes of what my fellow speakers were saying. Happily, we had quite a detailed session plan, so what follows is based on that, plus the bits I can remember.)

My introduction began with some reflections on what we mean by citizen science. Increasing public involvement in research can enhance the process, reflect alternative perspectives and bring new skills and expertise to research. But this involves something of a change of paradigm, as scientists are nudged from their traditional role of research designers and decision-makers. But will participants – whether professional or non-professional – need to develop new skills? How can we support the real-time, person-to-person communication that collaborative projects will need? What contribution can members of the public make? How will the roles of scientist and citizen change and develop? Does collaboration limit the issues and questions that research projects can be addressed? What can collaborative projects achieve? And finally, how do we value the contribution of members of the public?

Cindy picked up from there, beginning by considering the difference between citizen science and citizen scientists. The community projects with which she is involved challenge notions of what ‘people’ can do; but how do we value the contribution of citizen scientists in a world where complex issues require a widening of the dialogue, not only in  decision-making but in problem-solving as well. Engaging people (volunteers) in citizen science projects vs. people taking issues into their own hands and starting their own investigations brings with it issues of validity and credibility. 

Shannon described the work of the Public Laboratory, a group of activists, educators, technologists, and community organisers who are developing open-source, DIY tools to support participatory research. For example, they have d-i-y kits for mapping and environmental monitoring, using tethered balloons. They also have a d-i-y spectrometer. PLOTS has eight principles that underpin its work, including (and I’m really sorry but I didn’t get them all written down!) the central importance of transparency and accountability. For example, their balloon monitoring kits are physically attached to a person on the ground; this is an immediate indication of who is doing the monitoring. PLOTS tools are open source; likewise, they ask that participants share the outputs of their work with the community – and encourage attribution of results. They also believe data should be readily understandable, hence a preference for maps and other visual representations.

The discussion that followed was lively, thank heavens. At one point, the audience started arguing amongst itself, which is always a good sign. I love it when the speakers don’t have to say anything. The twitter stream from the session is here (unfortunately, the livestream failed and so did the recording). Discussion comments included (again, I didn’t get them all):

What motivates people to participate in research? Are people more likely to participate if there’s something in it for them? This linked to comments made in the SpotOn session on crowdfunding.

What about people who participate in medical research?

Engagement can be a positive benefit for research – that’s the best reason to do it.

Some scientists have a negative attitude towards public engagement – are they likely to have a similar attitude towards public participation?

Are there some sciences that require sophisticated laboratories and may be just too complex for public participation? (Asked by someone who researches something hideously complicated in neural signalling.) Shannon noted that PLOTS is creating a d-i-y spectrometer; Biopunk and Madlab also mentioned.

Importance of scientists engaging with people, not at people.

Some journals won’t publish work based on contributions of citizen scientists, due to concerns about credibility and validity of data; how do projects overcome this?

How do we acknowledge the contribution of citizen scientists? Some kind of micro-attribution? More than acknowledgements, less than named authorship? 

Happily, Cindy managed to get back in for a few closing remarks. Unhappily, just as she said “there’s an interesting quote I want to close with”, she was cut off again. What she intended to say was: Citizen Scientists can’t draw a line between their professional activities and responsibilities towards society as a citizen.

Scientists are citizens; citizens are scientists. Publics are scientists; scientists are publics. Thanks to everyone who participated in this session.


After the :

December 12, 2011

Or, the mystery of the missing sub-title

In the final few weeks of my studentship, modesty forbids me to say that I have put a stupendous amount of effort into crafting a beautifully-written, compelling, thesis. Because everyone knows that the really important part of a piece of writing is the sub-title; that bit after the colon, the subtle, punning, quixotic, jesting play on words that hooks people and draws them into reading the big chunk o’ stuff that comes thumping along afterwards. I’ve had three years to think of a post-: and … nothing. Not a sausage. I’m still using the title I started with: Open Science and Public Engagement.

So, dear reader, while the damn-thesis (that’s its official designation) is still a draft, I’m open for suggestions. Here are few I thought of earlier:

  • From PEST to PEST&R? (the ‘r’ is research).
  • Muddying the waters or clearing the stream? (I’ve used this one for a conference paper.)
  • Enhancing collaboration and communication (v. dull)
  • Telling the whole story (although ‘narrative’ would be a bit classier)


A good question is never answered*

October 28, 2011

Science is a series of revisions, constantly churning; moving, sometimes with a huge lurch, sometimes ever-so-slightly, towards the answer but never quite getting there. Science isn’t a secure, tranquil certainty, it’s confusing, messy, dynamic scepticism.

Scientists know this; indeed, playing one’s part in moving towards certainty is an important reason for being a scientist in the first place. But that’s not always how it looks; from school tests marked with a red tick to the Daily Blah telling us we should definitely eat prunes, there’s always supposed to be an answer; this is right and that is wrong.

Uncertainty, interpretation, queries, possibilities aren’t usually presented as outcomes by scientists, which is why I find the extensive media coverage of the OPERA experiment so interesting. Here is a huge team of scientists who concluded that their results showed neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light. Quite a daring conclusion, given that if it’s valid, breaks a fundamental concept of the Special Theory of Relativity. The Twitter flock came alive with fleas as the thought hopped from one tweeter to another. Jim Al Khalili offered to eat his boxer shorts if it turned out to be true, albeit carefully reserving the right to happen to be wearing edible pants at the time.

This result has not offered us an ‘answer’ but rather a glimpse into how science works; the whole process of scrutiny, checking and revision ( The team has turned to the community and asked for the data to be reviewed, the result to be scrutinised, other postulations to be made and other solutions presented. Admittedly, most of the people doing the checking and revising are likely to be other physicists, not non-maths-speaking members of the public (like me) but the OPERA team has deposited their paper in a publicly-accessible archive (the arXiv website (, so it could just be that someone, with no formal qualifications, working in an office job, in a small quiet country, might be the person who makes the breakthrough. That could never happen.

*A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea. (John Ciardi)

Nothing to do with my work

September 9, 2011

This post has nothing to do with my work, other than it stopped me doing it for a few hours. It does have something to do with openness …

How to hang a door in ten easy steps:

1 Ignore – preferably for several months – the fact that the sitting-room door won’t close properly and is getting, ever-so-slightly, a bit worse every day.

Put this down to either (a) the weather – the infernal English dampness getting into the wood and making it swell or (b) the yucca plant, in an ill-advised bid for freedom, making an escape attempt by curling its leaves around the door jamb. Think that at some point, one will probably get the plane out and shave a bit off the door. Probably.

2 Attempt to enter sitting room while carrying a cup of tea. Discover door now won’t open. Bang nose on door and throw tea down one’s front.

3 Swear

4 Don dry clothes and inspect door. Discover hinges are pulling away from jamb at both top and bottom.

5 Swear. Prop door up with pile of heavy books.

6 Next morning, gird loins, drink strong coffee and eat flapjack (important to keep up one’s strength).

Discover only six (of eight) holes actually have screws in them. Extract screws. Top hinge has two: one 2cm long (useless), one 3cm (and not even a wood screw). Bottom hinge has four: three 8cm long and one 6cm. Walk into town and buy 8 new, all-matching, long screws. Get home and discover pack only contains 6 …

7 Have a scrabble around in the shed for anything useful, such as two long wood screws. Discover tube of ‘no more nails’ glue. Decide screws are just nails with attitude, so glue might come in useful, especially as wood around bottom hinge resembles mature Emmental.

8 Hold up (did I mention it was very heavy?) door for a very long time, while son adopts usual manly role of tool manipulator. Allow blood to drain from arms while holes are drilled, glue inserted and screws screwed.

Allow bottom screws to go in with no discernible grip on surrounding wood. Close eyes to this and concentrate on fact screw heads are at least flush with wood. Allow top screws, on the other hand, to stick out for varying distances from the hinge. Such a pretty pattern!

Take over screwdriver from son in attempt to see if fresh (if feeble) muscle power will move the more prominent screws in a bit. No. Try different screwdriver. Still no.

9 Swear.

Extract long screws from top hinge and scrabble around in screw box for shorter ones.  Insert shorter ones; ignore the fact they go in with no discernible … (see above).

10 Prop door up on several maps and a biography of Isaac Newton; after all, it’s got to be important to allow glue plenty of time to set before attempting to close door. Gloomily suspect that we’ll be back to point 3 before long!

“Foster child of silence and slow time”

April 16, 2011

“And then, of course, building in space for reflection …” I quite surprised myself a few days ago when that popped out of my brain during a discussion with participants in the Science Communication Masterclass about how we went about planning events.

Surprised, because when I was first introduced to reflective practice two and a half years ago, I struggled to see the point. But I dutifully plodded on, incorporating it into my work until, almost unnoticed, it’s become natural, important and something I’m now suggesting to other people.

Maybe I shouldn’t be startled. I love abstract art – Mondrian, Matisse, Hepworth. I love editing written work – getting as close as possible to that magical pivot between minimum words and maximum explanation. For me, reflection makes sense as mental editing – catching experiences, mulling over their qualities and weighing them against knowledge. Paring thoughts down, trying to capture their essence and express them pithily.

I haven’t yet reached complete pith; I rather tend to waffle and persiflage, although I have written one or two paragraphs I think are pretty good.

But effective reflection takes time. Integrating experiment into practice and thence to understanding isn’t something (for me, anyway) that happens quickly. I’m lucky; the last two and a bit years have offered me unprecedented time to develop my thoughts (I’m still not sure anything useful will come out of it but I live in hope). PhD research might be meagre on bread but it’s rich in time to feed the soul with hyacinths; I’m unlikely to have such space afforded me again.

Silence is equally vital. Tentatively unravelling the strands of my thoughts and knitting them into solid sense can’t be done against clamour. Fortunately, I’m trusted to work at home for most of my time, where I look over my laptop’s screen on to my garden and my house’s thick Edwardian walls block out most unhuman noise.

Time crops up a lot when I talk to interviewees. Time flies. Time is like an ever-rolling stream. Time is of the essence (rapid move from poetry to the law!). Researchers taking an Open Science approach could be in danger of releasing a deluge of data and information on to the world. Does anyone have the time to deal with all that … stuff?

As I pondered in a previous post, does all that information muddy the water, making it impossible to see beneath the surface? Does it put science in the way of becoming like modern governments, which have to create policy lines in the sand in the face of the relentless tide of 24-hour news?

Unless you’re one of the rare but admirable researchers who runs an open notebook, committing to an open approach can be seen as taking time “away from the ‘real’ work”. It takes time to think through what it all means, write up the notes, tidy up the spreadsheet, comment the program code … but hang on, aren’t these processes truly a vital part of the real work; taking time to analyse, to evaluate, to ponder, to categorise … to reflect? Apparently doing nothing isn’t not doing anything. By making us stop doing in order to make what we’re doing transparent, Open Science could slow things down a little but such procrastination might be the donor, not the thief.

PS: by coincidence, my supervisor recently pondered the virtues of slow science in his blog. An object lesson in how to be an incredibly busy person but still reflect effectively!


March 30, 2011

I think I’m becoming horribly critical, which is not a nice thing to think about oneself. Or perhaps more intelligent. Yes, I think that must be it.

A few nights ago, I went to an event with a fairly feeble speaker. I won’t tell you where, what, when or which sex (English could do with a neutral pronoun; I could only resort to the slightly awkward ‘they’ or the completely irritating ‘he/she’*). There was muddle, bad logic and general steam-coming-out-of-my-ears-ness but that’s not what I want to write about. I’ll just say “?!*&$#~/”. No, what interested me is that I seem to be developing a confidence in my critical faculties. A few years ago, I’d’ve known there was something wrong but doubtful why and certainly hesitant to say how. Now, unconsciously, I’ve developed an ability to question and criticise, absorbed from the environment I’ve luckily found myself in.

Yes, I think that must be it.

*English could also do with a new orthographic mark to indicate ‘this isn’t really part of the argument, merely me dribbling on for a bit; serious-minded readers might want to jump straight to the other side of the closing parenthesis’. We all have our favourite punctuation; I easily drift into being parenthetical (although I also scatter semi-colons liberally). Likewise, I have a friend who’s a great dasher – editors emerge from his work prickled all over like porcupines!

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche

February 28, 2011

This really has nothing to do with either open science or public engagement. I hope no one minds!

A conversation I recently had with a friend threw up – in the random way email exchanges do – Chaucer’s description of the Clerk of Oxford. The Clerk was new to me but I have a fellow feeling for him – I’m definitely not right fat, never held high office, spend all my spare pennies (and a few unspare ones) on books …

But what struck me was the last line. I left teaching without a backward glance some (aargh!) twenty-two years ago. I was no loss – although I might have been a reasonable teacher, I was an absolutely rotten lion-tamer. Recently though, I’ve been doing a little teaching as part of my researcher skills training. Not a lot – nowhere near enough data points to make a line – but some. And – to my pleased surprise – I’ve really enjoyed it. Some of it’s gone well and some not so well but it’s all been so interesting. Not just the actual standing in front of students but the whole devising, preparing, planning, reflection, thinking about how I could do it better. Why? The past has no glow on it that can light up the present. Age? Possibly. University students, rather than school pupils? Very likely.

Another surprise has been how much of the educational theory is as it was in the late 70s. This intrigues me. Is it that (a) nothing has changed, (b) I was very well-trained at teacher training college or (c) I’ve been away from educational theory for so long that the cycle has come back to where I was?

Gladly learning has never been a problem. The good thing about being released from the classroom all those years ago was the time it gave me to learn. Until the last couple of years, all by myself but the last two years, I’ve been like Peter Rabbit in the Mr McGregor’s vegetable patch. I hope I don’t lose my jacket and shoes; I’ll settle for the camomile tea.

A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logik had long tyme i-go.
As lene was his hors as is a rake,
And he was not right fat, I undertake;
But lokede hollow, and therto soberly.
Ful thredbare was his overest cloke to see,
For he hadde nought geten him a benefice,
Nor was so worldly to have high office.
For he wold rather have at his beddes hed
Twenty bookes, clothed in blak and red,
Of Aristotil, and his philosophie,
Then robes riche, or fiddle, or psaltery.

But although that he were a philosóphre,
Yet had he but a litul gold in cofre;
But al that he might gete, and his frendes sent,
On bookes and his lernyng he it spent,
And busily gan for the soules pray
Of them that gaf him money to scolay.
Of studie tooke he most cure and most heede.
Not one word spak he more than was need;
Al that he spak it was of heye prudence,
And short, and quyk, and ful of gret sentence.
Sowndynge in moral virtu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche