Citizen Science refers to the general public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their own knowledge, tools and resources.
Participants provide experimental data and support for researchers, raise new questions and co-create a new scientific culture. While adding value, volunteers acquire new learning and skills, and a deeper understanding of the scientific work in an appealing way. As a result of this open, networked and trans-disciplinary scenario, science-society-policy interactions are improved leading to a more democratic research.
The SOCIENTIZE project intends to coordinate all agents involved in the citizen science process, setting the basis for this new open science paradigm. One of its outcomes is the ‘Green Paper on Citizen Science, that aims to foster the interaction between stakeholders and Citizen Science actors. CSIC contributed to this document through the following text.
The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) is the largest public institution in Spain dedicated to research. Given its multidisciplinary nature, it undertakes research in every area of knowledge and has around 125 centres distributed throughout all the Autonomous Communities.
According to the guidelines promoted by the European and Spanish organisations, the CSIC has a strong commitment with popularisation of science activities (also known as scientific culture, public understanding of science, outreach, citizen participation or public engagement). During the last ten years, the CSIC has increased the number of these activities and their social impact, besides having led a progressive institutionalisation of its role as a dynamic agent in science-society relationships.
In this regard, the CSIC’s Statutes, approved at the end of 2007, establish as ones of its roles the promotion of scientific culture and cooperation with updating knowledge of non-university education teachers. Moreover, since 2008 the CSIC has a Deputy Vice-presidency for Scientific Culture (VACC) whose mission is to boost, organize, disseminate, and coordinate Science in Society (SiS) activities.
The VACC is part of the CSIC steering committee, and is the CSIC’s Scientific Culture Network top node. This network is formed by 130 people with different profiles: scientific culture professionals (organized in units throughout the research centres and regional delegations), researchers, technicians and managers. The scientific culture units and the VACC members formally constitute the network.
Given the experience of the VACC (whose origin is the CSIC’s Scientific Culture Area created in 2004), we would like to share a number of ideas and good practices about the social role research public centres and R&D&I funding institutions have regarding the scientific culture. The following approach takes into account different kinds of popularisation activities, such as the traditional dissemination (public understanding of science), one-way and two-way communication, informal education, public engagement, or citizen science. These ideas might be of interest for the development of policies and strategies intended to improve the science-society relationships.
1. Commitment to SiS and mission statement: Citizens, public institutions and the R&D&I staff should demand research organisations to include the public communication among their targets, especially in public research funding. This is a fundamental step if we want popularisation activities to be part of the agenda of research organisms, and no longer be considered as external and additional activities.
2. Organisational structures of scientific culture: These activities must not be seen as extra or voluntary tasks. Their fulfilment should be carried out by specific structures, networks and professionals in collaboration with researchers. In this respect, the creation of units in every research centre that fosters, coordinates and organises scientific culture activities should be promoted. The size of these units and the number of professionals would depend on the centre’s dimension and characteristics. The existence of institutional networks is also recommended for those institutions integrated by several research centres. These networks should encourage dialogue and coordination between units and people involved. In the CSIC the creation and growth of this kind of structures has allowed to improve and increase the activities, as well as the participation of its staff and citizens in a significant way. Additionally, it has promoted the implementation of new kinds of activities, such as long-term projects, citizen science initiatives or innovative events regarding their location (ports, small districts, markets, etc.)
3. Long-term funding: Just like in R&&I, the promotion of scientific culture should have a stable and long-term funding framework in order to support long term projects. Research centres should tend to include a permanent budget chapter for scientific culture activities. Also, agreements with the private sector or public organisms should be considered. Likewise, it would be desirable that competitive calls for SiS projects could consider providing financing on a long-term basis in order to perform actions which take more than one-year periods. The CSIC’s “Ciudad Ciencia” (Science City) project is an example. “Ciudad Ciencia” is an initiative of CSIC and Obra Social “la Caixa” (a private corporation) whose aim is to promote dialogue between scientists and citizens who live in medium size areas, which are far away from the big research centres. It was launched in six cities on March 2012 after an intense preparation period. Nowadays, the project brings science over to 30 districts through on-site activities (conferences, demonstrations, exhibitions, debate clubs, etc.) and online citizen participation workshops. The activities’ design and commissioning, the establishment of collaboration with the local authorities and teaching centres of each district, and the development of a rolling program in each area, require deadlines superior to a year. “Ciudad Ciencia” has already promoted several encounters in different districts between CSIC researchers who are also book authors of current scientific outreach matters (such as Higgs boson, exoplanets, extremophile beings, etc.), and citizens who have read these books in book clubs. Citizen participation is a fundamental part of the project, because some of the main pillars of “Ciudad Ciencia” are the online workshops where citizens themselves create maps about plants and geological features in their districts, with the help of CSIC researchers.
4. SiS activities must be rewarded: Researchers and technicians, research groups, projects and research centres must be evaluated and rewarded for promoting the culture of science as a fundamental aspect for the strengthening of science-society relationships. The participation of researchers in dissemination activities has to be acknowledged and assessed in recruitment and promotion processes. Otherwise, a great number of researchers will continue to consider these activities as useless or directly incompatible with their professional career. Likewise, in every call for research projects, it should be demanded the public communication of results. In this context, “Malaspina 2010” (a Consolider programme project) constitutes a model. The SiS section, which is led by the VACC-CSIC, has produced new dissemination materials and has organised conferences, guided visits to oceanographic vessels and exhibitions that have had a total of 650.000 visitors, from both in and outside Spain. We consider that the researchers’ commitment with scientific culture activities and the closeness that the audience feels with them is increased when they are carried out in the research project framework. On its part, the research centre evaluation should consider the targets fulfilment regarding SiS. This is already a reality in the CSIC, where dissemination activities have an assigned value within the productivity bonuses granting criteria to each of its component centres.
5. Indicators, evaluations and measurements: It is necessary that the R&D&I system embraces clear criteria and indicators in order to evaluate scientific culture activities at all stages. It is also necessary that the institutions in charge of scientific policy initiate working groups in which experts and professionals with a wide experience in the field also participate, so that those criteria and indicators are implemented after a shared process of analysis and thinking. All this is closely linked to the previous point.
6. Methods in citizen participation: Regarding scientific culture promotion projects and activities, we understand that, wherever science is taking place it must come to an encounter with citizens and look for innovative formulas in order to establish dialogue with that part of society that seems further away from research activity. In this sense, we consider that the “Malaspina Expedition” example could be useful because it took advantage of its stops in ports to carry out dissemination activities, and opened the doors of the oceanographic vessels Hespérides and Sarmiento de Gamboa in 10 cities around the world. Likewise, initiatives like the already mentioned “Ciudad Ciencia” or Movilab (a mobile laboratory placed in a truck’s trailer, which has already visited 63 different cities) illustrate that it is possible to bring science to communities that are further away from big scientific knowledge production centres, and that the impact (both in number of participants and local media) is much bigger, on many occasions, than the one reached in big cities, where cultural offering is, in general, far greater.
7. To foster scientific vocations: The encouragement of new scientific vocations and scientific culture in classrooms should be a key point in any democratic society. An example case is “El CSIC y la Fundación BBVA en la Escuela”, which has been offering scientific training for elementary school teachers for over ten years. The CSIC also promotes different programmes of regional scope that link secondary schools with research centres, and organises and participates in a great number of competitions (Innovaciencia, Inspiraciencia, Fotciencia, etc.) One of the aims of these competitions is to motivate the curiosity and interest towards science, technology, and innovation among the young audience. These experiences make us suggest that both the involvement of the teachers and the stimulating character that competitions have will be good starting points for citizen science initiatives that try to involve the youngest ones.
8. Citizen Science good practices: Finally, we would like to add an idea based on our experience in citizen science projects as members of the Ibercivis Foundation, which promotes the Bio-computing and Advanced Physics Institute of the University of Zaragoza (BIFI). We believe that the biggest challenge that these projects face is to be attractive to research groups. In citizen science projects, the researchers’ commitment is higher than in other dissemination activities, inasmuch as they require the design of participation mechanisms and the maintenance of a constant dialogue with participants. That is why research groups need an incentive greater than its members’ individual commitment on sharing their research results with society. Thus, this incentive can only come from the real profit that might proceed from citizen participation on collecting, producing and analysing data. In the ongoing research projects framework, with already established methodologies and deadlines, it is extremely complex to implement citizen participation mechanisms that are, at the same time, useful for the project. For this reason and in order to foster this kind of projects, it would be an interesting measure if the calls for projects fomented proposals which integrate from its very conception citizen participation mechanisms.