Enthusiasm and Citizen Science

I recently wrote in a grant application:

Citizen science is defined as data collection by non-scientists for scientific projects. Since the mid 19th century, volunteers, amateurs and enthusiasts have participated in citizen science. In the 21st-century, citizens are leading the way in monitoring risk and environmental change, for example recording radiation levels following the recent earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan. They are mixing an interest in science with new technologies and traditional enthusiasms.

I want to use this blog post to introduce a few ideas. I’ve talked about citizen science on this blog before in relation to a THE article about the contribution of citizen power to academic (scientific) research and a great workshop at the University of Nottingham on the contribution of the amateur to environmental knowledge. Now – there is a pretty obvious link to be made between enthusiasm and citizen science – namely that people choose or feel compelled to contribute to scientific endeavour.

the most important driver for the expansion and sustainability of volunteer participation was enthusiasm. (Bell et al. 2008 Biodivers Conserv (2008) 17:3443–3454 DOI 10.1007/s10531-008-9357-9)

Although it can also be said that citizens are not the only ones who experience enthusiasm for science. See the recent Richard Dimbleby Lecture given by Sir Paul Nurse (leading geneticist) on The Wonder of Science. And if you follow me on Twitter @DrHG you’ll know how animated I got about Sir Paul’s use of the word ‘passion’ or ‘passionate’. I quote from his lecture:

But first my own passion for science. It began when I was a nine year old boy. It was 1958, the beginning of the space age. I was looking up at the London night sky and saw amongst the stars, one that was rapidly moving and was very bright. This was Sputnik 2, the second man made satellite to orbit the earth, and inside was a dog called Laika. I must admit I felt sorry for Laika because I had a dog of my own.
Watching this man-made star moving and twinkling in the night sky made me think about the other stars, so I went to my local public library and discovered that stars were suns, that there were galaxies up there too, and some of the stars were planets. I pestered my parents for a small telescope, and found I could see the crescent of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the craters of the moon.
Go out early tomorrow evening and you will see Venus and Jupiter to the west, and Saturn to the south. Use a telescope if you can. Seeing such marvels for yourself is much more immediate and personal than looking at images on the television. The natural world is fascinating, and is even more so if you are prepared to observe, to experiment, to think, and to try and understand. That is what scientists do, and there is a little bit of the scientist in all of us, especially when we are children.

To date, I have mainly discussed enthusiasm in relation to fan cultures, audiences, public history and material cultures, perhaps with a sprinkling of work on ‘amateurs’. Although there has been slightly less talk about ‘amateurs’ because the groups I have worked with are often retired professionals doing parts of their former job as a hobby. Plenty of interesting things to say here about work cultures, ageing populations, expertise and professionals moonlighting as amateurs. However, I want to use the space here to think more seriously about the implications and useful connections to be made from an alliance between my stuff on enthusiasm and work in the field of citizen science.

As readers will know, I’ve recently commenced (almost completed) a study of counters participating in the Wetland Bird Survey. This work has revealed a culture of enthusiasm much like those investigated in my earlier work with technology enthusiasts, the same passion, emotion, dedication and zeal, but what is significant is the contribution of these activities to policy and science. Unlike the technology enthusiasts who belong to groups to be in the company of others with a similar interest, what I’ve called elsewhere a ‘safe space’, here in the figure of the wetland bird counter I met an individual who dutifully goes it alone to count the birds on his patch, who then returns these records via an online form or paper card to a central point within WeBS, and then carries on with his (invariably a ‘he’) day – the count is usually part of a good walk, adds purpose to an outing or gets the counter out birding once a month. There is no ‘group culture’ per se, it is all about the patch, the birds, the count and the scientific contribution, in some cases counters are helped by a spouse to count or members of the public who spot things, some counters are incredibly scientific in their approach, whilst others have a more relaxed attitude i.e. I will count what I can see to the best of my ability. So it was in my RGS-IBG Small Grant on environmental volunteering and the Wetland Bird Survey, Cornwall, UK, that I encountered ‘citizen science’ as a means to understand and examine more fully, as well as challenge, my conceptualisaton of ‘enthusiasm’.

Enthusiasm is an active interest or hobby, a means of structuring people’s passions, as well as an emotional affiliation to a cause or group (Geoghegan 2008, 2009). Having dealt with the complexities of enthusiasm in groups and institutions in my earlier research, where I believe my work on the difficulties in communicating enthusiasm can contribute to both academic study and policy on citizen science is in the context of harnessing citizen enthusiasm.

This is the first of several posts around citizen science…

One thought on “Enthusiasm and Citizen Science

  1. Pingback: Geek Manifesto at Reading Skeptics in the Pub « The Culture of Enthusiasm

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