Blast from the past – activist and citizen science

1970s science democratisation revolution

1970s science democratisation revolution

There is something in the waters.

It is the second time within a month or so I have seen a mention of Science for the People and, not surprisingly, the parallels – or lack thereof – between this 1970s US-based initiative of scientists and engineers (also see their, in this case, undermentioned British counterpart – Science for People) and the recent viral expansion of citizen science. Both provide some historical detail as well contemporary tidbits very relevant to my interest in how web 2.0 can empower the citizens in the contemporary citizen science projects. It also totally confirms that I picked a hot topic – go me!

I summarise them briefly here for future reference.

First was Christina Agapakis’ (@thisischristina) piece in her Oscillator blog, On Democratisation.

She starts with a reference to the Dutch invention, Science Shops, aimed at public interest group-led research supported by universities/research students. They originated at the same time as the SfP movement in the anglo world, no doubt in response to the same vibe in the air – a drive to challenge and transform the authority of military-industrial complex.

Pity that they seem to be referred to as a historical phenomenon as the concept is alive and well in Europe – more info via Living Knowledge science shop network site. (Waschelder’s paper cited by Christina is worth a look at for evolution of the idea in the early 2000s in The Netherlands). But as this exchange on Twitter illustrates, it is hard to across this via a quick Google search, perhaps even more so from outside of Europe.

Like Christina, I came across science shop idea by accident, in my case, a year or so ago via one of the recorded conference sessions I watched while trying to get a feel for research around social engagement in science for this course. Unfortunately, for the life of me I cannot remember where and who….I was also excited – and befuddled why this concept is not more widely discussed in the context of the rise of citizen science and its historical roots (the fond reminiscences here tend to focus on the gentle rise of the amateur naturalist/recorder and naturalist societies of 1800s in UK and US). Is it because of the radicalism (the power to determine direction of research is explicitly given away by “the scientists” to “the people”, and people with activist agendas at that)? Its roots in the continental flavours of democracy and citizenship? Or perhaps transcontinental and translingual disdains and lack of awareness? Maybe it’s the distasteful continental habit of mixing social sciences with the ‘real science’? Or is it the artefact of the Google-search bubbles which exclude non-regional contents? Or perhaps I am not in-the-know enough yet to know?

Either way, Christine points out that much of that early radical democratising spirit is pretty much absent from the storm of science democratisation rhetoric of late:

  • The radical iconography of Science for the people has been appropriated by initiatives “focused on the one-way transmission of science from the academy to the public, rather than a radical transformation of science itself to address public interests” (as per Alice Bell‘s analysis)
  • Open publication does not mean access and empowerment for large sections of society
  • Citizen science tends to be simply “letting people do free work for” the scientists rather than taking direction from the people
  • Claims of democratisation in synthetic biology via production of cheap kits and software seem to be just a marketing ploy targeting already existing institutional client base
  • Even some, usually more promisingly empowered, “hacker spaces and community labs” feed into the establishment – getting DARPA funding and seen as the way into Silicon Valley millions.

She calls for cautious examination of these democratisation claims (but refraining from the reflex of instantly throwing the baby out with the bathwater)

[…]we shouldn’t let something as important as democratization become an empty label. We need to be critical of self-proclaimed democratizers[…]

Hear hear!

Now, the second tidbit comes from a different angle, hinting that the scientific activism of the Science For the People flavour is alive. And may even be strengthened by web 2.0 “affordances”. The message delivered by Dan McQuillan in his post for LSE Impact Blog, Bottom-up citizen science projects could challenge authority of orthodox science through community-led investigations (the original comprehensive paper here)

He gives 3 examples of bottom up projects from the fringes of citizen science, “that resonate more with the emergent values of the 1960s, with their emphasis on participatory experimentation, environmental sustainability and social justice”:

  • London-based Extreme Citizen Science research group (ExCiteS). The label and their self-proclaimed goals for working bottom-up and with sensitivity to local contexts, while using networked tech, imply radicalism and community empowerment. After listening to its head, Muki Haklay’s, presentation last year at some livecast science comm meeting in London I am having doubts. Their flagship project was to get illiterate rainforest dwellers to map their area using mobile gps enabled devices. There was no mention of whether and how the project came out of the local community needs or how they benefited from it. Hey but this is only based on a first impression from a barely remembered talk. It is likely that I will look into ExCiteS for my lit review so there is a chance they will redeem themselves;) Their Mendeley group reading list certainly has the right kind of flavour.
  • Cambridge, MA based Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. This is more like it! They claim to involve “communities all the way from framing the research questions, to prototyping tools, to collating and interpreting the measurements”, e.g. DIY spectrophotometer to measure oil spills. Putting “science at the heart of civic life”.
  • Kosovo Science for Change project, where the author is a researcher, and self-described on their Facebook page as “Community-driven citizen science in Kosovo brought by Innovations Lab Kosovo, Transitions Online and Internet Artisan.” Here is their proper ‘platform’ released just now – air quality monitoring data and API + crowdfunding elements. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy (“learning as the co-operative activity of understanding how our lived experience is constructed by power, and how to make a difference in the world”) – interest mega-peaked under my other, elearning, hat. Their mission statement is science for the people sentiment incarnate:

Citizen science is not just citizens doing science. But, science is modified by citizens. And citizens are changed by the science. Our commitment is to combine social values with scientific practice, and put the community groups at the core of the project

So far so good. The paper also delves into more dense theoretical territory, to make its claim of transformative potential of such movement, which I may need to mull over a bit more, including:

  •  defining SftP and the activist citizen science as counterculture sensu Theodore Roszak (cf the youth movements of 1960s) – movement ” mobilising a vital critique of the scientific-technocractic worldview” (or questioning the hegemony of orthodox science”)  and “lived as a transformative experience where people are changed at a psychic level through participation in unique events.” I guess, despite the wishy woshy psychic terminology, the latter simply means that scientists and citizens are fundamentally changed by doing citizen science together.
  • orthodox science is not as truthy as it would like itself to believe. Enter Lee Smolin’s book, The trouble with physics, and its account of hard science’s “distortion by group-think and social pathologies”. Or the recent demonstration of the overwhelming unrepeatibility of cancer studies. Which brings us to the Max Planck-Ernst Mach confrontation on how physics truths should be defined. Mach argued for inclusion of context, Planck wanted God-like absolute and disembodied truths. Planck won and physicists heads are now regularly exploding with self-importance only true believers can muster.
  • What does all this have to do with countercultural CS fringes? Well – they may yet become a science “which dies not have the ambition to totalise knowledge”, “a form of empirical investigation that has no need to be hooked up to a grand narrative” (nomadic science sensu Deleuze and Guattari). This would be more true to Mach’s formulation on the nature of scientific knowledge – that “truths are never separated from the specifics of the context and process that produced them”.

Phew – chewing and re-chewing will be indeed required.


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