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!