It could be citizen science. Part 1
What exactly is citizen science? If you are thinking backyard amateurs and weekend hobbyists, have a look at Scientific American’s Citizen Science website where you will find examples of researchers from some of the world’s top universities and research institutes enlisting the help of enthusiastic volunteers to monitor light pollution, design nanoparticles to attack cancerous tumours, protect endangered species and scores more projects around the world.
Public participation in scientific research projects has achieved notable outcomes for science. In recent years, over one hundred articles have been published, in peer-reviewed scientific journals that analyze and draw significant conclusions from volunteer-collected data.
Is there a greater role for citizen science in the Mekong?
I plan to explore the possibilities this week in Ha Noi at the 3rd Forum on Water, Food and Energy. From talking to CPWF Mekong project staff and partners, I know that researchers at Can Tho University in the Vietnam Delta have trained farmers to take water quality samples that will help expand their database and inform policy decisions on agricultural development and measures for adaptation to climate change. International Rivers supports a project in the Mekong called thaibaan research that trains villagers to document and catalogue their local natural resources. At least one CPWF Mekong project is promoting participatory video, and it has been suggested that citizen science might be one way of keeping the newly published CPWF Mekong Hydropower Map up to date. But is it ‘citizen science’ if you don’t name it so?
In many ways, citizen science is a return an earlier time when the boundaries between science and society were less distinct; when anyone with an interest in ‘natural philosophy’ could pursue their passion and freely share their findings and ideas via coffee house culture, ‘salons’ and informal groups of friends like Joseph Priestly, James Watt and Erasmus Darwin (father of Charles) who met with like minded associates once a month as The Lunar Society. The original Oxford English Dictionary was crowd sourced by volunteers.
The culture of science and research is characterized by critical thinking, systematic enquiry and scepticism toward unfounded claims. By promoting citizen science we are promoting a climate in which citizens engage in rational discussions and debates on civic matters. Aside from the very real contributions it makes to the advancement of knowledge, citizen science offers ordinary folks ‘a way in’ to local and regional policy debates that affect us all.