Science as collective action

 
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Science as collective action
Science as collec
Increasingly, members of the public are doing their bit towards scientific
research by sending in observations or carrying out small-scale studies.
Fun to do, but for policymakers this ‘citizen science’ is also a way of
democratizing research and gearing it more to society’s problems. It is
hard to get funding for it, though.
TEXT ARNO VAN ’T HOOG PHOTO HH/MARCEL VAN DEN BERGH
Science as collective action
CITIZEN SCIENCE

ective action
Science as collective action
‘We didn’t have the resources
                                                                                 to send out researchers’

     I
        n the past few years webshops and super-       Jansen has been able to try out a citizen sci-   come snuffling around three times in one
        markets have started selling cheap camera      ence project of this kind together with the      night. Domestic cats are an exception be-
        traps equipped with a movement sensor          Mammal Association, in a project called          cause you can tell them apart by their
     so they automatically take a series of photos     Hopping Cameras. In this project, cameras        markings.’
     when something walks in front of the lens.        are moved from garden to garden for a year       If you want to involve a broad segment of
     These are simple variants of the instruments      in cities including Amersfoort, Deventer         the public, you have to make compromises,
     with which Patrick Jansen of the Wagenin-         and Nijmegen. A volunteer installs them 20       says Jansen. ‘Above all, the system needs to
     gen Resource Ecology chair group does re-         centimetres above the ground, half a metre       be fool-proof. With professional research-
     search, both in the tropics and in Europe, on     away from a tin of sardines with holes in it,    ers we would go for a different setup in a
     populations of shy animals which are diffi-       from which fish oil leaks. The idea is that      project using camera traps.’ But some de-
     cult to observe.                                  most mammals – mice, rats, hedgehogs,            gree of compromise on data quality is not
     ‘People buy one of those cameras for fun.         martens or cats – find this smell interesting    disastrous, says Jansen, because there is
     They think it’s a nice gadget, but after a        enough to be worth checking out.                 something to be said for quantity too.
     while it ends up in the cupboard,’ says                                                            Researchers are expensive and they cannot
     Jansen. Imagine if you could get those peo-       STANDARDIZATION                                  be everywhere at the same time, whereas
     ple enthusiastic about setting up the camera      The setup with the tin of sardines solves a      you need a large number of observations to
     in their gardens, or lending it to their neigh-   scientific problem: standardization. ‘Some       get a reliable picture of the distribution of
     bour, and sending in the pictures they get.       people have a high-tech camera trap with         mammals. Besides, there are other good
     ‘Then you could get a better idea of how          high resolution, and others have a toy. In       reasons for doing a citizen science project.
     mammals use the urban environment, rang-          order to overcome that difference in sensi-      ‘The Mammal Association wants to get
     ing from big gardens on the edge of the city      tivity, you need to lure the animals as close    people enthusiastic and aware that their
     to tiny green patches in the city centre. All     to the lens as possible so that even the least   garden can be a little habitat for wild ani-
     the evidence suggests that many woodland          sensitive camera picks them up,’ says            mals. For our students too, it is very handy
     animals are gradually shifting towards the        Jansen. ‘The disadvantage of using bait is       that they can get some experience with citi-
     cities, but we don’t actually know exactly        that we can’t then conclude anything about       zen science.’
     how that is progressing.’                         numbers, because the same animal might           If a lot of people take part, thousands of

         TICK RADAR                                       ALLERGY RADAR                                    GROWAPP
         Purpose Up-to-date information                   Purpose Overview of symptoms                     Purpose See for yourself how
         about ticks and Lyme’s disease;                  being experienced by hay fever suf-              nature reacts to a warmer climate.
         offers a ten-day forecast on tick                ferers. The Pollen Planner provides              Makes it possible to compare
         activity levels.                                 info on the expected pollen count.               photos from different seasons.
         Name Arnold van Vliet                            Name Arnold van Vliet                            Name Arnold van Vliet
         Year Since 2012                                  Year Since 2009                                  Year Since 2017

28   WAGENINGENWORLD
Science as collective action
CITIZEN SCIENCE

images come in. Jansen also wants to ena-
ble the public to help with identifying the
animals in the photos through Agouti, a
platform he built himself. This works in a
similar way to the successful website
Zoonoverse. There, thousands of volunteers
receive a short training course and then
help classify millions of photos from hun-
dreds of camera traps on the Serengeti             WILDCAMERA
plains in Tanzania, for instance, or in the        Purpose Doing research with
rain forest in Peru. To avoid mistakes, sev-       camera traps to monitor how wild
eral people classify the same photo.               mammals use gardens.
Jansen hopes to launch his camera trap             Name Patrick Jansen
project before the summer. The only thing          Year Since 2016
lacking is funding for the software develop-
ment and supervision once the project has
started. A lot of automatization will be
needed for gathering and storing the re-        European policymakers. They see this ap-          grants specifically for citizen science
search data: where and when was the photo       proach as offering ways of drawing the wid-       projects.
taken, and what does the garden look like?      er community into the pursuit of science,
‘Our photo processing system was made           spreading knowledge and making science            MINIMAL RESOURCES
for researchers and I don’t think it is user-   more open and democratic. In this respect,        The new appreciation and professionaliza-
friendly enough yet. Nor do we have a good      citizen science is very relevant to the recent    tion of citizen science would seem beneficial
helpdesk yet for questions and problems.        debate about open access to data and publi-       to researchers who have been working in
Involving the public like this will only suc-   cations, and the influence of society on the      this field for years now with minimal re-
ceed if everything works properly from the      scientific agenda.                                sources, as funding is still very hard to find,
start.’                                         In 2014, the European Commission pub-             as Arnold van Vliet knows from experience.
                                                lished its White Paper on Citizen Science. The    'You have to be constantly asking yourself
INCREASINGLY EFFICIENT                          paper waxes lyrical about the opportunities       what your business models are,' says the
Citizen science has the image of being cas-     and possibilities: ‘In citizen science, a broad   Wageningen citizen science specialist.
ual and amateurish. Primarily, something        network of people collaborate. Participants       In 2001, Van Vliet started up Natuur­
you do for fun. But mobile technology and       provide experimental data and facilities for      kalendar.nl: a phenological observation pro-
the internet are making communication be-       researchers, raise new questions and co-­         gramme which registers recurring natural
tween the general public and scientists in-     create a new scientific culture.’ Seen like       phenomena such as flowering, leaf fall, bird
creasingly efficient and international.         this, citizen science goes far beyond public      migration and the return of insects.
Anyone can submit online observations or        assistance for the researcher. The document       Van Vliet knows how to make good use of
data, carry out research tasks or make their    recommends targeted financing of citizen          this general knowledge. One example is the
computers available for calculations. There     science projects, and proposes making this        website tekenradar.nl which he started to-
are now too many projects, both large and       form of science a fixed component of large        gether with the National Institute for Public
small, to have an overview. They range from     EU research projects, such as the 80-billion-     Health and Environment RIVM. Tick bites
garden bird counts through air quality          euro Horizon 2020 programme for innova-           can be reported on this site, which provides
measurements and calculations of protein        tive projects. There are signs of growing         researchers with information about the risk
structures, to classifying galaxies or molec-   enthusiasm for the concept elsewhere too.         of Lyme’s disease, as well as making it pos-
ular structures of cells.                       The United States has already taken it one        sible to warn people when ticks become ac-
For a few years now, citizen science has also   step further: the National Science                tive again. Van Vliet’s ambitions go beyond
been attracting serious attention from          Foundation has recently started awarding          involving the public as data providers. >

                                                                                                                                WAGENINGENWORLD     29
‘You know that you’ll get some
                                  unusable observations’

                            For him, citizen science is a combination of       does not focus exclusively on publications.      Without attention you don’t get participants,
                            observation, analysis and the translation          Moreover, the monitoring of flowering            as Bastiaan Meerburg can tell you. He is
                            into applications, plus all the communica-         times, allergy symptoms, tick bites and mos-     head of the Livestock & Environment depart-
                            tion that entails. ‘Why get worked up about        quito bites is geared to the long term. ‘That    ment and an expert in rodent pests at
                            a plant that is flowering a month earlier be-      is very tricky for project financiers. So I am   Wageningen University & Research. In the
                            cause of climate change? Well, what about          constantly wondering how we can generate         summer of 2012, Meerburg created a bit of
                            hay fever, for instance? If birches and grass-     a reliable income. How do we maintain the        media hype around a project which asked
                            es flower earlier, 10 to 15 percent of the hu-     networks which collect data? Because it          people to send in rat droppings. The aim
                            man population are affected.’                      doesn’t all come free.’                          was to use DNA analysis to get the measure
                            The accumulated knowledge about weather                                                             of resistance to rat poison.
                            conditions and flowering times and the re-         COMMON ASSUMPTION                                ‘We wanted observations from all over the
                            ports of all sorts of allergy symptoms were        That is a common assumption about citizen        country, but we didn’t have the resources to
                            used to build the ‘pollen planner’, which,         science, says Van Vliet: it’s nice and cheap.    send researchers out to collect droppings.
                            with visuals like those used on weather fore-      ‘That is absolutely not the case. The techni-    That makes this an interesting alternative,
                            casting websites, warns hay fever patients         cal development of apps and websites, the        and we certainly got a good picture. Some of
                            weeks ahead that they can expect symptoms.         hours of analysis and interaction with the       the droppings were not usable because they
                            ‘Actually, we’d like to go a step further by in-   public cost money. Building up a community       had crumbled, and some were mouse or
                            forming the relevant people – patients, doc-       is time-consuming. You need to reach peo-        hedgehog droppings. You get that with citi-
                            tors and pharmacists – so that sufferers can       ple and motivate them. Will you join in? Will    zen science: you know that you’ll get some
                            start taking medicines before symptoms ap-         you stay on board? One of the ways we do it      unusable observations.’
                            pear,’ says Van Vliet.                             is through the stories we tell on Nature         The results of the DNA analysis were re-
                            For Van Vliet, citizen science means making        Today, showing how data provided by the          markable, says Meerburg. ‘One quarter of
                            the best of the time and money available, be-      public are used. That goes on 365 days a         the rats in the Netherlands were resistant to
                            cause science funding bodies are dubious           year, literally.’                                well-known types of poison. That is quite a
                            about this unconventional approach, which          The media play a key role in citizen science.    lot.’ This knowledge has contributed to
     PHOTO JEROEN JUMELET

                               SPLASH COUNTER                                     RAT DROPPINGS                                    EVOCA
                               Purpose Counting the number of                     Purpose Sending in droppings to                  Purpose Sharing information about
                               in­sects splattered on number plates               find out where brown rats are resist-            diseases and pests in order to solve
                               to get an idea of changes in insect                ant to rat poison                                problems in Africa.
                               density.                                           Name Bastiaan Meerburg                           Name Cees Leeuwis
                               Name Arnold van Vliet                              Year 2012/2013                                   Year Since 2016
                               Year 2011

30                          WAGENINGENWORLD
CITIZEN SCIENCE

more targeted pest control methods, with
pest controllers first checking which poison
is effective.
An important lesson, says Meerburg, is that
sharing results is good for the participation
levels. ‘It gives people the feeling that some-
thing really is done with what they send in.
We asked participants to give their postcode;
then they could look at the results on the
website within a few days. Commitment in-
creased tremendously, and neighbours start-
ed getting each other interested. Asking
each other: what’s living in your garden?’
The researchers chose a strategic moment:                                                             MOSQUITO RADAR
around the time of the Olympic Games, in a
                                                                                                      Purpose National monitoring
period when there wasn’t much other news.         specific ways of using it, or apps. You
                                                                                                      network for nuisance caused by
Meerburg: ‘Because of that the subject really     shouldn’t dream up solutions before the
                                                                                                      mosquitoes. Offers a five-day
caught on. I was interviewed for endless ra-      problem is totally clear at the local level.
                                                                                                      forecast of mosquito activity, in col-
dio shows and newspapers. That was good           That is what the PhD candidates are re-
                                                                                                      laboration with weather forecast site
for the research and led to us getting a lot of   searching in the field at the moment.’
                                                                                                      Buienradar.
material sent in. Somebody even sent in a         ICT and telecommunications offer new
                                                                                                      Name Arnold van Vliet
dead rat; they are still talking about that in    scope for connecting people, says Leeuwis.
                                                                                                      Year Since 2016
the post room.’                                   In countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and
                                                                                                      In 2017 muggenradar.nl joined the
                                                  Ethiopia, most people have access to a mo-
                                                                                                      international Global Mosquito Alert
FIGHTING MALARIA                                  bile phone by now. ‘That makes it possible
The digital revolution and the availability of    to collect data in a decentralized fashion,
telephones could mean citizen science could       and to link it to scientific models. Farmers
be used to address serious problems related       might send in observations on their mobile       mote collective action. So we are not inter-
to diseases and food security in Africa.          phones, giving you a picture of the incidence    ested in citizen science as a matter of
Finding out whether that can work in prac-        of diseases and plagues in an area. In turn,     collecting data and giving individual advice;
tice is one of the aims of the EVOCA project      that provides information about how farm-        we want to see if it can help a community
run by Cees Leeuwis, professor of                 ers could respond to the situation.’ It is not   deal with diseases more effectively.’
Knowledge, Technology and Innovation at           for nothing that the terms observation and       Citizen science originally grew out of the
Wageningen University & Research. In the          action feature in the acronym EVOCA:             idea that citizens could help scientists col-
next few years, 12 PhD candidates will be         Environmental Virtual Observatories for          lect data, says Leeuwis. ‘Subsequently, pro-
studying whether mobile information sys-          Connective Action.                               jects have grown up in which the citizen
tems can be built using elements from citi-                                                        becomes a bit of a scientist, with the focus
zen science for purposes such as setting up       IN TOUCH                                         still on the science. We take it a step further,
regional collaboration among farmers.             For Leeuwis, citizen science is primarily a      by focussing on an actual problem. What we
Leeuwis: ‘For us, citizen science is not an       means of mobilizing people and stimulating       do is very action-oriented. Science plays a
end in itself. The main priority is the prob-     collective decision-making. ‘Diseases and        role, but the pursuit of science is no longer
lems, such as diseases and pests in potato        pests are collective problems. A farmer can-     the main objective. That is a bit different to
farming, water shortages, or fighting malar-      not fight potato blight alone; you need a        the idea with which citizen science was
ia. Maybe we could use some citizen science-      community of farmers for that. It is precisely   started.’ W
like elements in addressing these problems        new communication technology that can put
but we are nowhere near ready to develop          people in touch with each other and pro-         www.wur.eu/citizenscience

                                                                                                                                  WAGENINGENWORLD     31
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