Connecting with successful frontier citizen science projects
REINFORCE will be forging sturdy connections with successful frontier citizen science projects. To do so, it will be capitalizing on the experience of some of the partners involved. One of them is the Open University, a leading university for flexible, innovative teaching and world-leading research in the United Kingdom and in 157 countries worldwide, which is leading the Dissemination and Exploitation work packages of the Horizon 2020 projects ASTERICS and ESCAPE.
ASTERICS aimed to open up the astronomy and astroparticle physics facilities to a wider constituency of stakeholders, from technical audiences to policy makers to the general public; while ESCAPE brings together key pan-European astronomy and particle physics facilities in order to address the challenges in open science and data accessibility faced by European researchers. As the projects are so close, it is essential to forge synergistic links between them and to coordinate in order to prevent repetitions, and to share evaluations and best practices.
We had a conversation with Hugh Dickinson, Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the School of Physical Sciences, who has been involved in several large-scale citizen science projects, including the perennially popular Galaxy Zoo. Thanks to these experiences, he has been able to look closely at how volunteers interact with citizen science experiments, what they expect from research teams, what their motivations are and how to best reward their efforts. Hopefully these insights will contribute to the success of REINFORCE.
Hugh Dickinson invites us to remember that scientists are human beings just like everyone else and, as such, any perceived separation between them and the rest of society is artificial. “I believe that most people are inquisitive, and many would like to improve the accuracy of their beliefs about the World they live in” he says “These motivations align precisely with those of scientists but unfortunately public perception seems to regard modern scientific research as obscure and inaccessible”. He recognizes that the research community must bear some responsibility for this attitude of citizens towards science. Their pervasive use of jargon and general reticence to expend effort making research comprehensible for non-experts are not great incentives for the general public. It is undeniable that scientists spend many years acquiring the technical skills that they require for their work and that citizens normally lack such focussed expertise. The problem is that, if the research community fails to promote its discoveries in a way that society can readily interpret, inquisitive members of the public will solicit information from alternative sources and can bump into publications that deliver spurious pseudo-science, undermining their own motivation to better understand the Universe. “As scientific researchers, we have a clear responsibility to help the public understand our work and its implications for their lives” he explains.
And this is exactly what REINFORCE aims to do: citizens who engage with the project will improve their overall scientific fluency, not only in the acquisition of new knowledge, but also in improving participants’ confidence and allowing them to accurately evaluate the reliability and provenance of scientific and pseudo-scientific results that they encounter in the mainstream media. According to Hugh Dickinson, by enabling participation in authentic scientific research, the REINFORCE citizen science experiments will help to make the scientific process more transparent and will hopefully improve public trust in science. Indeed, in the modern world, we can access so many sources of conflicting information that finding accurate answers can be a real challenge, but it is extremely important not to give up. Participating in REINFORCE could be a good opportunity to acquire the scientific skills and confidence needed to better evaluate all the competing claims that can be found when searching for answers, understanding if the information encountered is supported by sufficient and reliable data or not.