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.