Last week the Citizen Science Association held its first conference ever, with 600 people attending from 25 countries. Topics covered in talks, posters, panels, and stories, ranged from do-it-yourself projects to the technical aspects of managing data crowd-sourced in large-scale projects.
When I look at the diverse spectrum of citizen science and admire the new knowledge that crowds have produced, the social outcomes generated, and its policy influence, sometimes I see a radical science movement driven by social forces, and other times I see a radical social movement driven by scientific activity. Either way, I’ve seen citizen science used to support social and environmental justice.
At the CSA conference, there was an open session for discussions about justice in the context of citizen science. I missed the session and was glad that Melissa Eitzel took notes and shared them via email. In the session, when Rick Hall brought up the issue of young people and the arts, Melissa recorded the gist of his statements as, “cultural entitlement – everyone has the right to freely participate in the arts and the sciences. a freedom and a right to participate and to express culture through activities, and why [can’t] science be one of those expressions? that’s truly participatory.”
There is a movement to expand STEM to STEAM (and here), that is, support innovation from Art/design as well as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The arts already play a role in some citizen science programs, like Celebrate Urban Birds. For example, Katie Yamasaki created a lesson plan for creating wildlife art in natural habitat. The personal character of the arts make it accessible to all, and Celebrate Urban Birds uses interest and comfort with the arts as a stepping stone to garner participation in the science.
The step from feeling comfortable with art to feeling comfortable with science is a small one. Art and science have a lot in common. Art involves imagination and skill to construct windows through which to view reality. Art is an umbrella term for creative expression through painting, music, dance, poetry, and crafts. The word art can describe the process of creative skill or its products. Similarly, science is an umbrella term for the creative process of discovery in any number of fields of specialty, and science can describe the process of inquiry or its products.
Art can be therapeutic and so can citizen science (given health benefits of volunteering combined with mental health benefits of time in nature).
Even Albert Einstein noted a similarity, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Art and science both allow us to experience the mysterious, and both serve as an outlet for our imagination.
Art can be used to motivate political change. Citizen science also provokes social inquiry, builds human capital, and organizes an undercurrent of human energy that can change the status quo.
The main difference between art and science was succinctly put (albeit without proper attribution) by Claude Bernard, “A modern poet has characterized the personality of art and the impersonality of science as follows: Art is I: Science is We.” Now let’s add “Citizen science is Us” because it is both personal and collective. Art is an expression of a personal perspective that others can share and relate. Science, in contrast, is an agreed-upon process and structure that expresses a universal perspective, not unique to you or me but common to both. Citizen science is created by all of us. All are ways that change the way we experience the world.
Rick Hall raised two ideas at the CSA conference that could help how we envision citizen science.
First, Rick mentioned the need to move science to the center of culture (an idea I explored from a different angle). In a follow-up email, Rick wrote, “The arts do that quite naturally…we don’t talk about Citizen Readers (in book clubs for example) or Citizen Singers in community Choirs.” The way the arts are situated in culture is something for citizen science to emulate. As citizen science gains more acceptance, making new knowledge will becomes another way that people creatively engage with one another.
Second, one way to move science into culture is to promote science as a form of free expression. And when science is expression, then it is a voice that homes in on a sharable view of the truth. Hell yes, everyone should have the right to freedom of expression through scientific activity. Citizen science provides that freedom.
photo credit: Karen Purcell