Empowering citizens for better science
Scientific progress has yielded technological innovations that have improved the lives of billions of people. But often, those people feel detached from how scientific research is done. EU-funded researchers aim to close the gap by involving citizens more directly in scientific research.
© idambeer #218618798, 2018 fotolia.com
Updated on 22 February 2019
Up to now, major institutions like universities and laboratories have driven scientific research. While this process has generated discoveries and innovations that have helped billions of people live better lives, it has also created a communication gap between the scientists who perform research and the citizens who might benefit from it.
This gap exists because of a lack of meaningful exchanges and mutual learning and listening between scientists conducting research and both the daily concerns of citizens and broader societal challenges. As a result, some citizens feel apathetic about whether science can solve todays most pressing problems, or even whether research is worth the cost.
The EU-funded DITOS project aims to close the gap between scientists and citizens by involving non-scientists directly in gathering scientific data, formulating research questions, and conducting analyses. The results will encourage more widespread scientific literacy.
Project activities focus around two themes: bio-design, or the use of living things such as bacteria in product design or art; and environmental sustainability. Citizen scientists have great potential to assist in such research. For example, citizens in urban areas have helped to collect data about local levels of air pollution, leading to an improved understanding of where pollutants tend to concentrate inside major cities and what to do about it.
Project coordinator Muki Haklay, a professor of geographical information science at University College London in the UK says that the project is already paying off.
In the short term, this project has helped build a community of scientists and citizen scientists who are working together to contribute to scientific research in Europe in many different fields, he says. In the long run, it has fostered a more robust relationship of mutual trust and listening between scientists and citizens, an indispensable element for the future of European research.
The projects benefits do not end there. All too often, men have dominated scientific research, and Haklay is proud that the projects partners have encouraged better gender representation among researchers.
We have engaged a higher proportion of women 51 % on average across all our events than is typical in science projects, he says.
Since its inception in June 2016, DITOS has achieved impressive outreach numbers. Haklay says that 400 000 people have engaged with the project face-to-face through 624 events in 17 countries. An additional 3.3 million have engaged online.
Some events have included a mobile scientific laboratory, the Science Bus, which offers scientific projects for adults and children. It includes lessons on how to make your own yoghurt, sunscreen, bacteria detector, or even your own mobile phone battery charger all while learning about the scientific principles behind them. These tools bring science into remote school classes, fostering social inclusion and interest in science.
DITOS has also engaged directly with governments, holding 25 events with over 1 000 policymakers across Europe. As part of such work, it has published policy briefs on the synergies between citizen science and open science, citizen involvement in biotechnological innovation and responsible practices, and the promotion of cross-border research and collaboration for biodiversity conservation.
Looking ahead, DITOS will hold a pan-EU forum in Brussels in April 2019. Its participants will include high-level policymakers from across the EU. Beyond bringing citizens and scientists together, the projects overarching aim is to ensure that Europe becomes a leader in engaging people with science.
DITOS partners include SMEs, universities, science galleries, museums, arts organisations, and NGOs. Although the project is scheduled to come to a close in May 2019, Haklay believes that its benefits will last for years.