Mass effects for the arts as well as science

Following on from my research on enthusiast groups and societies, I have been keen to understand a bit more about citizen science. I have been drawn to this idea, firstly, by an event on ‘the contribution of the amateur to understanding environmental change’ at the University of Nottingham, where I heard Anna Lawrence from Forest Research speak passionately about cultures of participation. I was also interested in her paper

Lawrence A. (2009). The first cuckoo in winter: British phenology recording, credibility and meaning. Global Environmental Change 19: 173-179.

in which she calls for a closer attention to the inner dimensions of citizen science (for example motivations) and their relationship to the outer dimensions (policy contribution). This really prompted my work on the Wetland Bird Survey. Secondly, chatting to Prof. Muki Haklay at UCL about a possible grant application really got me thinking. He is now director of the Extreme Citizen Science Research Group at UCL and his interest in making technology accessible to citizen scientists around the world really appealed to me.

So what has this go to do with the title of this post? Well, I read with great interest an article in Times Higher Education a few weeks ago about the rise of the citizen scientist, however, I wanted to respond to point out the connections that could be made here regarding a the contribution of citizens to the social sciences, humanities and arts. So here is a link to the original article “Powered by the People:

And here is my response:

Mass effects for the arts as well as science

27 October 2011

I was pleased to read Darrel Ince’s article about the rise of the “citizen scientist” (“Powered by the people”, 20 October). Citizens, and the oft-maligned amateur, have been involved in scientific enquiry since before it emerged as the discipline we know today. Professionalisation and questions of trust have served to dissuade scientists from involving citizens in their research projects. But ongoing spending and funding cuts, the scale of global problems and the range of the public’s expertise and enthusiasm make “citizen science” an appealing – not to mention affordable – solution, and the supply of potential citizen researchers is to a degree unlimited.

But I think we can push Ince’s point further. First, let’s not leave the humanities and the social sciences out in the cold. They too could (and are slowly beginning to) feel the warmth that citizen contributions can bring, particularly when we think of the volunteers involved in preservation and heritage, private collectors, local historians, re-enactment societies and so on.

Second, the internet has served to open up the opportunities for citizens to engage with universities and science, yet only a small proportion of the population actively engages in “citizen science”. We need to work on new ways of enticing would-be participants to contribute.

I agree that partnerships, particularly with pre-existing amenity societies, are a step in the right direction. However, notwithstanding current political thinking on bolstering communities and volunteering, the organisation of a national network of citizen enthusiasm, incorporating social media, local hubs (where participants could gather) and universities, requires urgent attention.

Citizens have always been enthusiastic and willing to contribute: we now need to think more creatively about how to harness their power.

Hilary Geoghegan, Associate research Fellow in geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Whilst I am well aware of the Mass Observation movement and the contribution of other non-academic groups to scholarly research, I felt it needed to be said, that more could be made of the relationships between higher education institutions and amenity societies in order to advance a network of enthusiasm that really harnesses the power of the people!

One thought on “Mass effects for the arts as well as science

  1. Pingback: Enthusiasm and Citizen Science « The Culture of Enthusiasm

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