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.

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“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!



how do I open … let me count the ways

November 30, 2010

Does it matter that definitions of what the ‘open’ in open science means are many and various? Naturally, I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed (that’s around 25 people) what ‘open’ means to them. Naturally, I’ve had 25 subtly different answers.

Within the community of scientists, a delicate structure of rules has grown up that sustains our trust in ourselves. We trust each other to cite references properly, to attribute thoughtfully, not to jump each others’ claims and knock down small children in the rush to publication.

Thing is, the rules are largely implicit and maybe you have to be a fully-paid member of the academy to get them. But as the furore over the leaking of emails from UEA (which I won’t cheapen by referring to as Climateg*t*) showed, in the light of common day, expectations can be very different.

The Russell Review – one of the tribunals that investigated the issue – found that while there was no reason to doubt the rigour and honesty of the scientists involved, there had been a ‘consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness’.

What exactly is the proper degree is a moot point. Does it matter that – as my 25 replies show – definitions of what the ‘open’ in open science means are many and various? I don’t think it does; the important thing is to be open in the first place – as open as feels comfortable. As the leaked emails saga shows, it’s easy to confuse ‘normal process’ with ‘deliberately secretive’. Openness can help … open things up. Humans have evolved pretty sophisticated ‘oops that’s not quite right’ detectors over the millennia but we need something to work with. We need the whole picture; the photograph, the list of other publications, the funders, the research question, the blog. It all helps build the narrative; even the twitter post about the particularly nice cup of tea they just had.