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GRAssroots Citizen science for global data Environments

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GRACE (GRAssroots Citizen science for global data Environments)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

The GRACE fellowship is about how grassroots citizen scientists in East Asia, Western Europe, and Central Africa mobilize new data technologies to tackle environmental threats; and how public authorities and research communities respond to citizen-generated environmental data and data practices. It seeks to develop original governance approaches that facilitate interaction between these stakeholders towards global environmental sustainability.

We are presently witnessing an explosion of grassroots citizen science initiatives covering a wide range of pressing environmental issues, such as air pollution. Increasingly, these initiatives take the form of community-driven practices that facilitate citizen engagement with scientific tools and data to address real-world problems. As these grassroots networks grow, they potentially reconfigure relations between science and society. Using their own technologies (e.g. self-assembled air quality monitoring devices), citizens in these networks initiate contextual learning about their habitats and involve broader publics in the definition of problems, data collection, and analysis; while increasing pressure on public authorities and scientists to open up science and science policymaking to society.

The research project takes these observations as its entry points to assess how grassroots citizen scientists in different world regions tackle environmental threats; and how formal institutions respond to citizen-led practices. With concerned stakeholders, it addresses the challenges that emerge in these processes with the aim of developing mutually responsive environmental data governance approaches.

While the public adoption of mobile technologies could help to facilitate more inclusive and effective science governance, the benefits of citizen engagement with digital technologies cannot be assumed. Scientists recurrently express concerns about the scientific quality of data produced by citizens and the value these data have, as most citizens lack formal scientific training. Many citizen scientists voice criticism of the close links between science, industry and government. It is hence unclear how the advent of grassroots citizen science will affect global environmental governance. This study seeks to examine the challenges at hand to strengthen and develop the connections between citizen-driven approaches and institutional imperatives in the governance of environmental problems.
The research project has three main objectives:
1) To illustrate and conceptualize how grassroots citizen practices expand the reach of environmental research and public engagement with technology across distinct world regions.
2) To determine and compare how citizen-generated data and practices challenge formal institutional approaches to global environmental problems; and how institutions respond to such challenges.
3) Based on (1) and (2), to reflect with project participants and stakeholders on recurrent challenges inherent in democratizing environmental data through grassroots citizen science, and develop synergies between grassroots and formal institutional governance approaches.

To achieve O1, the Fellow has charted the co-evolution of informal, grassroots (bottom-up) and formal (top-down) citizen science trajectories based on a comprehensive review of scholarly and policy documentation, and source texts emanating from grassroots citizen science groups. This review was complemented with semi-structured interviews with members of citizen science groups and social movements, civil servants, policymakers, enabling the Fellow to distinguish trends that shape the current context for citizen science in East-Asia and Belgium, Europe. The Fellow adopted a multi-sited ethnographic approach consisting of intensive field visits and participant-observation techniques. Due to the COVID outbreak, the Fellow performed an exploratory analysis of grassroots citizen science initiatives in Africa.

To achieve O2, the Fellow documented how citizen science is shaped through encounters between citizen scientists and members of formal institutions, their discourses and materials, utilizing and expanding concepts being developed in citizen science scholarship. These findings are reported on in international peer-reviewed journals, books, conference proceedings, and other publications, including the mainstream media; and presented at citizen science venues (e.g. European Citizen Science Association conferences).

The COVID outbreak has prevented the fulfilment of the O3. However, the Fellow has published extensively on his research project in policy and media outlets to feed public debates on grassroots citizen science, guide research and policymaking and ensure the social relevance of the project and its results. For more details, see: project final technical report.
Scientific impact. Based on a cross-case analysis, the Fellow contributed a richer understanding of how grassroots citizen science emerges locally, regionally, or globally. He introduced the notion of “citizen sciencization” to underline how citizen science is shaped through both bottom-up and top-down imperatives. His research sheds light on citizen science as an emerging pattern of innovation governance and probes its problem-solving capacities.

Networks of excellence. Through collaboration with Prof Gabrys, members of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) and others, the Fellow has established new research networks. He introduced the Belgian Science and Technology in Society (BSTS) network in Cambridge and ensured transnational cooperation with KU Leuven (Belgium), Oslo MET (Norway), Komazawa University and SOKENDAI (Japan). He continues to collaborate closely with other MSCA fellows.

Policy impact. The Fellow has brought together citizen scientists, knowledge institutes, researchers, and policy makers in Europe and Asia. He advises the Flemish Knowledge Centre Scivil on a citizen science project on artificial intelligence. His project attends citizens, scientists, policymakers, etc., to the diversity of participatory practices, urging them to explore synergies between different approaches. It provides recommendations for collaboration between policy makers, scientists and citizen scientists in disaster contexts, urging stakeholders to build institutional capacity for ongoing exchanges between them.

Impact on citizen science groups and associations. The Fellow has set up a Member Page for the University of Cambridge and contributed a Resource Page on grassroots citizen science to the European Citizen Science Association. He has presented at ECSA events and similar initiatives in Belgium and Japan. He has extensively communicated his research work with civic groups in Japan and with citizen scientists in Europe. He has been invited to present his research work at citizen science events (e.g. 10 Years Safecast).

Career impact. The Fellow was invited to guest edit a Special Issue on the Future or Responsible Innovation (including the future of citizen science) for the Journal of Responsible Innovation. He gave an interview on his project in the Flemish daily De Standaard (daily circulation of 98,000 copies). He has established new contacts to develop new competitive research proposals on open science and citizen science. He will continue to teach modules on citizenship at the University of Cambridge in 2021-2022.
Artistic rendition of citizen scientist measuring pollution (image credit: Hans Boeykens)