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On the Science and the Citizen - An Interview with Alan Irwin

Foto: Nikoline Arns / Unsplash

In 1995, Alan Irwin published the book ‘Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development’, coining the concept of citizen science. Recently, we got to talk to Irwin about the democratic aspects of citizen science, the development of the community since the 1990s and current debates about the term.

Alan, how did you first learn about or get involved in citizen science?

Irwin: That question takes me back to 1995 when I wrote my book on citizen science. Citizen science, in the way we recognise it now, for me, did not really exist. There were activities going on, particularly around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the US, but I wasn’t aware of those. So for me, writing that book was about coming up with a term, a way of describing something which didn’t exist at the time - it felt a bit hypothetical. I was drawing, however, on a lot of experience and examples like science shops and other participatory activities, which I was very inspired by. With the term ‘citizen science’ I wanted to point to and capture the relationship between science and citizenship, which I thought was something significant and have always been slightly obsessed with.

In your 1995 book you defined citizen science as ‘the democratization of knowledge production and a way of expanding the possibilities for constructive science society relations’. How did you come to this characterization of citizen science?

Irwin: There was a sociologist of science, Dorothy Nelkin, who was very influential for me. She basically said that there is a built-in tension between science - which often means leaving decisions to a relatively few experts - and democracy - which is generally about getting more people involved. This was in the late 1970s and there was a lot of discussion about public participation and decision-making in the UK around that time. That got me thinking about how to imagine this relationship in more positive and productive ways - and you could already see examples of this, such as science shops. What I meant to say with my book is that people know stuff and this knowledge can be really important and valuable and should not be dismissed just because it is not scientific knowledge.

Around the same time, in 1996, Rick Bonney also defined citizen science, putting a focus on the data-gathering dimension of citizen science. Do you see the democratic and the data-gathering aspects of citizen science as opposing each other? How do they intersect?

Irwin: I think, in principle, they don't have to conflict. As I see it, Rick Bonney’s and my approach are just sketching out some of the possibilities. I’ve met Bonney once, at the ECSA conference in 2016 in Berlin, and for me there is no tension around that. Gathering data can also be something which boosts people's sense of citizenship or democratisation. I believe that knowing things about the world and sensing that you're contributing to research can be a tremendously exciting feeling for many people. The interesting territory is where data-gathering and democracy start to interconnect - and they can do that in surprising ways. After all, if you're gathering data about, for example, birds in your locality and you're noticing that certain birds just don't seem to appear anymore, you could stop at that point. But it's also possible to ask the next question: Why is that?

In what ways has the citizen science community changed since the mid 1990s?

Irwin: One of the biggest changes was brought by digitalization, the internet and social media. In the early to mid 90s, I simply didn’t have the facility to search for citizen science projects. These new ways of pooling and sharing information have enabled and shaped the networks and the sense of connectivity between different citizen science actors we have today. There is also no doubt that having this term, ‘citizen science’, was a powerful way of bringing together different stories and seeing connections between beekeepers and astronomers, between people in the local community and school projects, tying these otherwise disparate things together. The fact that people, even in different languages, are using that terminology, is a way of setting up a sense of community. Having that term has given the concept more substance and legitimacy. 

Have you been following the current debate, which is taking place especially in the US, about switching to the term community science instead of citizen science? What is your position in this debate?

Irwin: I find that debate very interesting because the way in which we use the term ‘citizen’ in the European context is intended to point to inclusion and the idea that people have rights. It’s trying to augment and include people in society. But I understand very well that particularly in the US, the term citizen can be the opposite and can be used as a way of excluding people. I don’t think it’s for me to say which term should be used. If I was someone living in the US and feeling excluded, I might feel very strongly that the term ‘citizen science’ was undermining me, whatever the intentions behind it. So if that’s the connotation, our American colleagues need to discuss and if necessary change it. In the end, the most important thing is the underlying idea, not the specific word that is used. People should employ the language which works best in their context. I can see certain parallels, but I hope that we won’t have that issue with the term ‘citizen' here in Europe.

In your academic writing, you've also coined the term ‘scientific citizenship’. What is scientific citizenship exactly?

Irwin: It’s hard for me to think about the meaning of citizenship - a sense of belonging and inclusion, of having some connection to the decisions that are being made and affect our lives profoundly - without bringing science into it. Scientific citizenship is trying to emphasise this important aspect of citizenship, which is about engaging with issues that are driven by changes in science, technology and innovation. So the idea of scientific citizenship is not about a different kind of citizenship, but about drawing attention to the fact that often our citizenship models don't include these things. It is important to have citizen rights and public discussions around issues of scientific change, such as nuclear power or artificial intelligence today. Democratic institutions need to openly debate these complex topics.

How does citizen science contribute to the development of a sense of scientific citizenship?

Irwin: I think citizen science has the effect of making people see the interconnections between the world of knowledge - which includes both citizen-produced knowledge and scientific knowledge - and what goes on around them. Citizen science can augment our sense of agency, our sense that we can make a difference in the world.

Citizen science has seen quite a degree of institutionalisation and professionalisation in the last 20 to 30 years. How do you think this affects bottom up and marginalised approaches to citizen science?

Irwin: It’s a slight dilemma in citizen science that having more participants doesn’t automatically make a citizen science activity better. Scaling things up can also change the nature and effects of projects, especially for more community-based ideas of citizen science. When we talk about extending networks, sharing ideas, learning from and helping each other and drawing inspiration, then of course, scaling up citizen science can be very valuable. We just shouldn’t simply go for quantity over quality. I like to draw parallels to political movements like feminism or environmentalism - there is nothing wrong with more people knowing about and identifying with these ideas, but when these movements become mainstream, there’s a risk of them losing the energy which created them.   

How do you view the standing of citizen science within academia today?

Irwin: I think that in academia, citizen science is primarily viewed as an extension to scientific methods, as a means of getting people to supply data in a way that helps us as scientists. And there are lots of good examples of this, such as people checking pollution on beaches and in other waterways. It’s okay to do that but it’s a basic model of citizen science. I would encourage that we reflect on how this could change the way that science operates more profoundly. I also wish that the citizenship aspect of citizen science could be seen as just as important.

From your personal point of view, what would you hope for the future development of the citizen science community?

Irwin: I think we should reflect on the ways in which precisely we frame what citizen science is. We should be aware that there are multiple framings but it doesn’t have to be either the scientific framing or the citizenship framing. We need to keep those framings open. The diversity of citizen science is extremely important and valuable. If citizen science just became one kind of activity, whatever that was, I would feel a sense of loss. A diverse ecosystem of citizen science activities can bring different kinds of groups together and help maintain a dialogue - both between these groups and within the citizen science community. So I would hope that we can keep this range. I like the plurality, one might even say the chaos, of citizen science.

Fabienne Wehrle

Fabienne ist Projektmanagerin und Online-Redakteurin. Sie betreut die Plattform, kümmert sich um die Social-Media-Kanäle und ist für die Kommunikation rund um mit:forschen! Gemeinsam Wissen schaffen zuständig.