Research Heidi Ballard

Providing Expertise in Citizen Science Research
February 2015

Heidi Ballard, associate professor of environmental education, presented talks on citizen science and public participation in scientific research at the Cambridge Conservation Forum in November 2014 and at the first-ever Citizen Science Conference that preceded the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in February.

Cambridge Conservation Forum

The title of Ballard’s talk “Environmental Science Learning through Participation in Scientific Research: From Learning to Conservation Action” in Cambridge, England was part of the Cambridge Conservation Seminars at the University of Cambridge. 

Citizen Science Association and the AAAS

Ballard participated in a number of panels and presented a broad array of her citizen science research the first-ever Citizen Science Conference that led into the annual AAAS meeting in February 2015. She presented studies on the development of science identity in citizen science projects; citizen science in natural history museums; the convergence of environmental education, citizen science, and conservation; and evaluation of learning and conservation outcomes in youth citizen science. See the abstract for her talk on the opening panel titled “Public Engagement for Scientists: Realities, Risks and Rewards” at the AAAS conference.

“Engaging the Public through Participation in Scientific Research”

Abstract of talk given at AAAS Meeting

One way to engage the public in science is to involve people directly in scientific research and environmental monitoring. This has become a viable and crucial way to address local and global environmental, health, agricultural, poverty problems, among others.  

Public participation in scientific research can take many forms, from projects that allow large numbers of people across huge spatial and temporal scales to collect (citizen science) and categorize (crowdsourcing) data, to collaborative community-based participatory research projects in which scientists and community partners work hand in hand to ask and answer locally-relevant questions.  

Involving members of the public in scientific research can be a two-way street: the research project can benefit from the time, energy, local knowledge, expertise and experiences of the participants, and the participants can benefit by learning more about how the scientific process really happens, limitations and uses of real science, and potentially benefit their own or even wider communities by generating relevant information.  But not every research or monitoring effort is necessarily appropriate for a participatory approach, nor do these presumed benefits arise from every participatory project.  As with every public engagement endeavor, there are no silver bullets. I describe some key considerations and questions that scientists can ask themselves before embarking on a participatory project, whether it is a citizen science project involving members of the public in collecting data, or a collaborative project with a community-based group every step of the way. 

Despite the apparently recent explosion of citizen science in the United States (see the new Citizen Science Association and its first conference), collaborations between scientists and members of the public through research has gone on for hundreds of years and all over the world, and we have a growing research base on what works and what doesn’t and under what circumstances.  

I aim to provide a brief overview of useful approaches for scientists hoping to involve the public in a research or monitoring project, drawing particularly from conservation, natural resource management, and public health, as well as pitfalls to watch out for.  Above all, we know that a communicative, transparent, respectful relationship between scientists and public participants leads to the most fruitful and effective projects that authentically engage the public in science.

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