Measuring the costs and benefits of citizen science

EU researchers are building the first integrated, interactive platform to measure the costs and benefits of citizen science. Credit: © ANDREI ASKIRKA, Shutterstock

It has never been easier to accurately measure the impact of any scientific research, but it is much more difficult for citizen science projects, which do not follow traditional methods. Public participation puts citizen science into a new era of data collection, an era that requires a new measurement plan.

As you’re reading this, thousands of ordinary people across Europe are busy marking, categorizing, and counting in the name of science. They may report crop yields, analyze plastic waste found in nature, or monitor wildlife populations. This relatively new method of public participation in scientific research is experiencing a major boom in both the quality and scale of projects.

Of course, people have been exchanging observations about the natural world for thousands of years—before the term “citizen science” appeared on the cover of sociologist Alan Irwin’s 1995 book Citizen Science: A Study of People, Experience, and Sustainable Development.

Today, citizen science is on the rise with larger projects that are more ambitious and better connected than ever before. And while collecting seawater samples and photographing wild birds are two well-known examples of citizen science, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Citizen science is evolving thanks to new data collection technologies made possible by the internet, smartphones, and social media. Increased connectivity encourages a wide range of notes that can be easily recorded and shared. Publicly-obtained data sets from members of the public are a boon to researchers working on large-scale and geographically diverse projects. Obtaining this data is often very difficult and expensive.

Both sides win because scientists are helped to collect much better data and because an enthusiastic audience interacts with the wonderful world of science.

But it was difficult to define success, let alone translate it into indicators for evaluation. Until now.

A group of researchers in the European Union took on the challenge of building the first integrated and interactive platform to measure the costs and benefits of citizen science.

Hundreds of questions

“The platform will be very complex but able to capture the characteristics and outcomes of projects, and measure their impact on many areas such as society, economy, environment, science, technology and governance,” said Dr Luigi Cicaroni, project coordinator. Measure the impact of the Citizen Science Project (MICS) behind the platform. Currently in the testing phase, the platform is scheduled to be operational before the end of this year.

“Imagine, we are working with more than 200 variables. So, you can understand the complexity and comprehensiveness of this platform. It is the first time that the project has considered so many variables and so many areas in citizen science,” he explained. . “Basically, the platform captures data through questions, and like I said, we have over 200. Some are simple questions and some are more complex.”

The questions delve into the role and responsibilities of the public (citizen-scientists), and whether their participation in the project has affected them in any way (changes in values, opinion, attitudes or views).

Another series of questions is used to explore the impact of the project on different areas. For example, projects are asked whether the innovation brought about by their projects leads to productivity growth and GDP. There are also questions that explore the level of trust between project participants and other stakeholders.

“We are relying on the information provided by the project coordinators,” Sicaroni added. “Sometimes they measure these aspects in very concrete and scientific ways. Sometimes they think they do, but they don’t. The platform will help them start measuring what isn’t measured and understand how to measure it.”

start measuring

For example, many multiple-choice answers on the platform offer a “yes, but not scaled” option. By choosing this answer, the project coordinators will be directed to a tool that will show them how to start the measurement.

“One of the things MICS taught me is that impact assessment is very complex,” said Cicaroni, who brought more than a decade of citizen science expertise to the project.

“With the platform, we aim to make it useful even before the project begins — when there is time to introduce elements related to impact and shape the project in a way to make sure the impact can be measured.”

Capture and deliver effects

Citizen science projects contribute to learning, skill development, scientific understanding, and awareness and enjoyment of science, according to Dr. Raoul Drachmann. His observation is based on the results of an international survey conducted by the CS-TRACK project he coordinates. The survey measured the experience of more than 1,000 volunteers participating in citizen science projects related to biodiversity in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

“In our project we discovered – also through our studies on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – that the environmental topic is very important (particularly, but not only, climate change) in the context of citizen science,” Druckmann said. “There is no doubt that the great attention given to the subject has an effect on relevant individual and social perceptions and attitudes toward the principal problems involved.”

The researchers also explored topics such as education, healthcare, and emerging challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our research revealed a lot of information about gender, age, and other criteria at the level of individual participants. Including diverse audiences in citizen science is of great importance to advancing the field and to making a real impact on science and society.”

Another critical factor to consider is the perceived quality of citizen science data. It is important to show what results from research that includes citizens who are not scientists. “So, I saw a bird that was different from any other, and I shared that information. So what?” Druckman said. “We need to be able to explain why this is important and show what happened with this discovery. Of course, we as researchers understand the value of the information that citizens collect. It is important to make this more widely known.”

By opening the process of knowledge creation beyond the restrictive confines of academia and research institutions, citizen science enables the inclusion of local expertise and general knowledge into the scientific process. It also enriches the search results.

More than halfway through the three-year research project, Drachmann identified another key piece of advice: the need for moderation. “Citizen science brings together many players – scientists and non-scientists – coming from different fields and expertise. It is never certain that they will understand each other. So the question is how to ensure that interest is maintained on all sides and progress in the project is maintained. The solution is effective moderation between all the parties “.

Addressing the contradictory data needs and motivations of different stakeholders (researchers, citizens, policy makers and business consultants) is vital. Also, arriving at a common understanding of citizen science and its benefits to science and society is critical if projects are to continue to grow and address both local issues and global challenges. This, in turn, will increase the trust and acceptance of citizen-generated data in order to address major challenges such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Citizen Science for Sustainable Development

Submitted by Horizon: The European Union’s Journal of Research and Innovation

the quote: Measuring Citizen Science Costs and Benefits (2022, Apr 14), Retrieved Apr 14, 2022 from

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