Citizen Science: Outside the Ivory Tower and Inside our Communities

Citizen Science (a.k.a. public participation in scientific research) is just that – science by the people, not just those formally prepared to professionally conduct research. For centuries, non-professionals have been contributing to formal academic research by collecting data, and even sometimes analyzing and reporting on that data.

Citizen Scientists pose during butterfly collection
NPS/Karlie Roland CC2.0 License


The next 100 years

In the U.S., at least, it seems the grassroots efforts are about to have their heyday: the White House recently sponsored a forum aptly titled “Of the People, By the people, For the people,” introducing a new federal toolkit to support citizen science and other crowdsourcing research. These efforts, the forum noted, are at the heart of innovation, one of eXtension’s three pillars.

True Engagement with Research

I’ll report more in depth on the toolkit in an upcoming eXtension Ed Tech blog post. For this post, I wanted to reiterate the heart of the prepositions in the efforts for innovation: of, by, and for the people. There are myriad projects in which one can contribute to data collection, generally a low-barrier entry point for participation. That satisfies the by the people part, to an extent.

What I really hope we embrace in Extension and eXtension, though, are the of and for – where our stakeholders and communities are not only giving us data, but truly partnering with us, helping decide what issues to ask and how, and ultimately sharing the resulting plans. That’s truly engaged innovation. Otherwise, it’s just a few of us folks who, let’s face it, still represent a pretty narrow and privileged sector, trying our best to make a difference but only able to go so far alone. To make real impact, we need to work hand-in-hand with our communities from start to finish, not just in the middle. That’s the citizen science I want to see.