Highlighted Selections from:

Citizen Scientists: Reconnecting Science With Civil Society


Stilgoe, Jack. “Citizen Scientists: Reconnecting Science With Civil Society.” Demos (2009): 1–80. Print. www.demos.co.uk

p.9: Chable is a Citizen Scientist. She can’t draw a line between her professional activities as a scientist and her responsibilities towards society as a citizen. Not only does she engage vigorously with the social and ethical context of her work, but she has changed the way she conducts her research. She is part of a recent but rapidly growing movement towards ‘participatory plant breeding’, involving small farmers and scientists. As a geneticist, she is interested in what she can offer to those small farmers who want to breed crops for their flavour rather than their yield or longevity. She helps cauliflower farmers work back through their crops’ genetic heritage to rediscover varieties that were forgotten with the move to industrial agriculture in the second half of the twentieth century. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.10: Her lab extends way beyond the university, into the fields and her own village market. She finds it impossible to work alone. She works with NGOs like Réseau Semences Paysannes – (the Peasants’ Seeds Network), which represents those French farmers who are interested in the science of farming. The NGO connects Chable to the farmers breeding new (and often old) varieties of wheat, cauliflowers and other crops. But it has not been easy. For her to do a new sort of science, she has had to break free of other people’s expectations about how scientists should behave and the sorts of research they should do. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.13: Citizen Scientists are the people who intertwine their work and their citizenship, doing science differently, working with different people, drawing new connections and helping to redefine what it means to be a scientist. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.13: The two world wars and the cold war that followed revealed to society the power of science to do harm in the wrong hands. Scientists joined and in many cases led the debate about the use of technology, particularly chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, in war and the use of science to legitimise such weapons. And these scientists redefined the idea of responsibility. As science grew in power, scientists accepted responsibilities far beyond their own laboratory walls. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.16: For Citizen Scientists, extra-curricular activities are hard to separate from their science. As we will see in this pamphlet, engaging with civil society is rarely just a hobby. It changes the way that a scientist thinks. One of the most famous lines of Einstein and Russell is that if we are to tackle problems that involve science, ‘we have to learn to think in a new way’. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.16: We need to think about scientists as individuals because science is nothing without them. Editing out the individual aspects of science means that, first, we miss the creativity and insight that makes great scientists great and, second, we strip scientists of any responsibility. As will become clear in this pamphlet, asking new questions and inviting new responsibilities changes the science that Citizen Scientists do. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.17: Science is emergent and unpredictable. But as science become more socially important and asks bigger questions of policy, politics and society, we must find ways to connect it with civil society. As part of building what some have called a ‘new social contract for science’, 8 , 8 we need to ask how scientists can be empowered to act as citizens. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.18: This pamphlet focuses on a few Citizen Scientists who are, in their own ways, doing things differently. It is a product of a larger two-year STACS (Science, Technology and Civil Society) project, funded by the European Commission. This project brought together scientists and NGOs to explore the possibilities for shaping new agendas for European research. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.21: As an idea, or a way of encapsulating a set of trends and challenging institutional and scientific dogma, civil society is increasingly important. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.22: Michael Edwards, a leading thinker on issues of civil society, identifies three ways of thinking about civil society, all of which provide points of engagement for science. First, civil society can be seen as a collective vision of the good society. This might be a society that is just, sustainable and open. But it is not just an extrapolation of particular points of view held by single interest groups. We need a way to work out differences. So, second, civil society is also the public sphere, where issues can be openly discussed and decided on. Third, civil society is the set of connections that groups and individuals draw to each other. It is what Edwards calls associational life. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.23: Science has a long history of talking about the public good, but its relatively weak connections with some of the neediest parts of global society mean that these discussions are often out of step with social demands. The idea of public value means that, rather than making assumptions about the public good, we look for ways to talk about and explore what different groups will value. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.24: The idea of collective experimentation is just as challenging to civil society organisations and politicians as it is to scientists. Politicians, decision makers and NGOs often lean on science to provide them with answers. With collective experimentation, all sides have to become more open-minded. We are already starting to see changes in the way that science is organised and communicated. Much of this, as with the open source software community and Veronique Chable’s participatory plant breeding, is about opening science up to public involvement while exploring new ways of doing research. It blurs the boundary between science and other social activities. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.24: In the past, talk of citizen science has tended to focus on citizens. Galaxy Zoo, a website that asks members of the public to help scan images of galaxies, is the latest in a line of citizen science activities that promise to get people involved in research. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.24: But these activities tend to be a public relations exercise for science-as-usual. The science stays the same, while bits of the legwork are outsourced to ordinary people. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.24: In other fields, we see citizens genuinely contributing their own expertise. As concern has grown about biodiversity, amateur naturalists are increasingly recognised as experts in particular places and species, working with scientists to study the biological and ecological changes. Understanding the environment on our doorsteps demands the involvement of amateurs. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.25: As citizens become more expert and scientists start to draw on their expertise, science changes. Veronique Chable is a scientist who knows that the farmers she works with have far more expertise about farming than she ever will. The more closely she works with them, the more her role changes. This is where citizen science gets really interesting. If we are serious about collective experimentation, we must ask what it means for science and scientists. For philosopher Bruno Latour, writing in Nature,

scientists need to be actively involved in reshaping science: Scientists now have the choice of maintaining a 19th-century ideal of science or elaborating – with all of us, the hoi polloi – an ideal of research better adjusted to the collective experiment on which we are all embarked.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.26: Science, Ziman argues, is increasingly important for debates within civil society, but research agendas have drifted away from the issues that matter to NGOs:

Because these bodies have no direct influence over the agenda of research, they are seriously limited in the use to which its results can be put... It is not enough to talk vaguely about greater popular ‘participation’ in science, or making scientists more ‘ethically sensitive’ or ‘socially responsible’. Civil society badly needs its own research capacity.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.33: Discussions of citizenship and civil society revolve around values – interests, preferences, priorities and visions of the world in which we would like to live. Linked to this is a broader debate about the value of activities such as science, art, security and other aspects of social life. Science has trouble with values, which means it gets into difficulty when we come to discussions of its value. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.33: Despite evidence to the contrary, institutions and cultures of science prop up the myth that science is neutral in terms of values. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.34: Science traditionally emphasises reason and is coy, at least in public, about passions, loves and values. But its practice and its people are often deeply passionate and value-driven. Behind much science, explicitly or implicitly, sits a vision of a better world. Science has always in fact been a key part of civil society. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.34: The philosopher Helen Longino argues that ‘values are good for science – the values of truth, objectivity, accuracy and honesty in results are integral to most notions of good science... We should stop asking whether social values play a role in science and instead ask which values and whose values play a role and how.’ -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.34: Robert Merton famously described ‘the normative structure of science’ – the codes and cultures that maintain science and scientific integrity. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.35: The increasing privatisation, commodification and constriction of science, often in the service of corporate motives, has met a value-driven movement from within science. The argument in favour of universal access to research, via online open access journals, has been led by scientists such as Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus. Inspired by Arxiv.org, which is used by physicists to share early data and speed up research, Varmus asked whether a similar approach would work for biology. His idea, which would later become PubMedCentral, provoked a massive reaction from science publishers, who saw it threatening their own business models. And, in a turn that is familiar from our stories of other Citizen Scientists, this reaction only hardened Varmus’s resolve:

I believe that science is one of those activities that improves the state of the world, and once you realise how important publication is in the series of acts that constitutes the doing of science, and once you understand the incredible transformation of that publication process that the Internet, and software, and the whole digital world, now promises it is hard not to be pretty passionate about trying to make that part of the scientific universe work more effectively.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.37: These discussions introduced John Sulston to some new questions about how to do global, collaborative science and the ethics of openness:

It started with this business of data handling. It goes back to 1996, the meeting in Bermuda, where we had the Bermuda agreement that applied to all public genome labs in the world. Rather to my amazement, we got agreement that we would release all the data instantly. We had about two dozen labs around the world all trying to sequence a tiny bit of the X chromosome because it was supposed to be important in cancer. There was a combination of professional and commercial motivations that was ugly, and was going to get in the way of sequencing the human genome.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.37: From these practical beginnings, Sulston’s interest in the social and ethical context of science blossomed:

Once you start paying attention to one intellectual issue, you start to think about intellectual property, you start to think about this and that and the other. The NGOs got a hold of me and asked me what I thought about access to medicines and so on. It all developed out of that. But the impulse was that collision over the handling of human genome data.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.38: Science has always had multiple motivations, but as biotechnology attracts more industrial interest, the private motivations and justifications for science have grown louder and those that are public, curiosity-driven, value-driven and needs-driven have been muted. As Sulston describes, ‘The tendency over the last 25 years has been to thicken up the private to the detriment of the public, uncommitted funding.’ His aim is to make science ‘more public, more transparent, so the scientists are thinking about what they’re doing’. Part of this is about individual scientists acting as citizens, but the lessons are systemic. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.42: For Chable, being a Citizen Scientist means being more honest about the connections between her life, the lives of others and her work. Her colleagues, however, have taken some convincing. Like other Citizen Scientists, Chable felt institutionally uncomfortable, so she moved. At INRA’s Department of Science for Action and Development, she has been able to build her work:

This department originally brought together all of the researchers who were thinking differently. Others at the institute thought that the department was rubbish, full of researchers who weren’t able to work normally. It depends on your point of view. I have found a home.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.44: When scientists start with citizens’ concerns rather than their own expertise, there is no reason why one area of science alone should be able to answer people’s questions. Popular epidemiology is necessarily multidisciplinary, which makes it very messy. It is as much about society, culture and politics as it is about the aetiology of disease. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.46: Researchers may claim that in their particular area of science colleagues are more attentive, but it would be hard to find a scientist who would argue that in general the world needs to publish more scientific papers. Stephens is damning about the effect of publishing on science. According to her, ‘the culture of science is getting worse and worse in terms of quantity of publication and citation’. Pressure to ‘publish or perish’ is creating a system she calls ‘incredibly myopic’, in which most science is judged, or possibly ignored, only by the tiny subculture who also practise it:

You publish as much as you can for a very specific audience... So science becomes narrower and narrower, not just because science is about specialisation but because science is politically dominated by a particular model.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.49: Rachel Carson, a former marine biologist, provided a compelling case against many of the chemicals, in particular the pesticide DDT, that were beginning to be used extensively. She prompted both scientists and activists to start asking new sorts of questions about the impact of technologies on society. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.52: his argument now is that science itself needs to change to respond to society’s needs:

The old scientific paradigm ignores the collective interest and the common good. Its only aim is science for the sake of science and, as such, it is a very elite undertaking... The risk is that science is becoming ever more specific and ever more niche, in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of people. This needs to be changed, and I think that the public has more of a sense of the big picture. The risk is that science will be the property of a select few and, aside from excluding large chunks of the population, this actually harms science too... Scientists do not always talk to each other, nor do they necessarily communicate their findings very well amongst themselves. So a change in how we distribute knowledge is overdue.

-- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.54: Hillbeck insists that she has just done what scientists should do – conduct research, communicate research and argue its merits in an open forum. But her activities have taken her far outside the boundaries of ordinary science. Her work became political and she stood up for her work, turning her into an accidental Citizen Scientist. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.54: Hillbeck’s gaze has widened to look at the wider relationship between scientists and society. She thinks it is vital for scientific ideas to be discussed in the open, and she thinks society needs to be able to cope with diverse and critical scientific viewpoints if it wants to answer big questions. This is about more than just civil society; it’s also about the future of science and innovation. Hillbeck has a clear sense that, if we are to meet the big challenges of climate change, food and energy security and global poverty, we need people who can ask difficult scientific questions. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.58: Much of the thinking that takes place under the ‘Science and Society’ banner works from the simplistic assumption that ‘science’ is one thing, ‘society’ another and their relationship is straightforward. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.58: According to Ernest Gellner, ‘Civil Society is the idea of institutional and ideological pluralism, which prevents the establishment of monopoly of power and truth.’ -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014

p.61: Scaling up such efforts means thinking about collaborative research with the third sector in much the same way as with the private sector. Innovation systems around the world have tried to force universities and companies together. Science parks, public–private partnerships and research networks have tried to get industry and academia thinking alike, with some success. If our intention is broad public benefit and our targets are global challenges, we should start building imaginative new partnerships between university researchers and civil society. -- Highlighted jun 5, 2014