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Engaging citizens in science for research excellence

Fermín Serrano, coordinator of Europe's 'Socientize' project, lays out his manifesto for citizen science...

Millions of people in Europe are in need of jobs, inclusion and lifelong learning. With the current level of unemployment, it is easy for people to start thinking that their time is passing by, wasted and useless. We at the Socientize project believe that 'citizen science' can bring major benefits to society, both over the short and longer terms. We are convinced that it can play a role in reducing the risk of societal exclusion, by providing meaningful engagement, attracting people back to learning, and helping them to become an active part of society.

Citizen science is an innovative concept to involve the general public in scientific processes. One of the best ways to help people understand science is by letting them participate in scientific research and experiments, and this is what citizen science tries to achieve.

From e-science to citizen science

The Socientize project seeks to enable the understanding of the digital society as another e-infrastructure itself. We see streets full of people as open data centers, ready to be engaged. Instead of having thousands of computing nodes and remote sensors, we work with smart citizens, and profit from their knowledge and creativity. Both e-science and citizen science are complementary approaches, based upon multidisciplinary teams and large scientific infrastructures used for testing new experimental models and addressing fresh questions in scientific development.

In addition to coordination and networking activities, the Socientize team is currently developing several new citizen science experiments. Amateur and professional scientists have the tools and the knowledge; we all just need to get our hands dirty together.

Cell Spotting: analyze pictures from a stem cell and help researchers with their analysis of cell death.

Mind Paths: create and share semantic maps by finding the path from one word to another.

By using new digital tools openly, we are changing the traditional research culture: citizens are now both producers and consumers of the scientific outcomes required to address today's global challenges. I highly recommend reading this concept paper on Europe's 'digital science vision' and its integration within the Horizon 2020 program.

The range of available citizen science experiments is expanding and many are rapidly growing in terms of scientific impact. This demonstrates that researchers are making the most of collective intelligence thanks to the social environment, powerful devices, and networking capabilities found in the European region. We are now getting very close to the level of the US, which has led the way in citizen science for decades. Also, key agents and players, such as CSA, ECSA, CCC, IDGF and Ibercivis are now becoming interconnected and better organized, which should lead to more efficient deployments and improved data sharing.

A win-win situation

Enabling citizens to participate in your research can, of course, be a great way to make the most of your resources and minimize costs. You can expect higher engagement and higher added value when participants are able to work on more complex or rewarding tasks. However, the sheer number of willing participants can also make a big difference when it comes to simple tasks, too. The more volunteers, the better: their background, ideology, culture, or economic situation is not important. The most important challenge for a citizen science project is to keep volunteers satisfied. Various ICT tools can make the dialogue faster and remove barriers and frontiers.

While contributing towards solving a scientific problem may improve the lives of others, participants in citizen science projects can also learn technical skills which may help them to find a new job. In addition, as well as effectively communicating and democratizing science, citizen science can play a key role in motivating students. So, when creating and evaluating a citizen science project, interdisciplinary teams must make sure they have scientific, sociological, and technological impact.

Green paper

A virtual workshop will be held tomorrow (17 October, 2013) to analyze the ideas and references gathered from external contributors about how to improve citizen engagement in science in Europe. Ahead of the workshop - in which readers are invited to take part - we have compiled contributions from experts, volunteers, artists, infrastructure providers, developers, teachers, policy makers, and private companies. A representative of the European Commission's Digital Science Unit will also participate in the event. Further details can be found on the Socientize website, here.

Based on the outcomes of this workshop, we intend to produce a green paper on citizen science, which will be presented at the ICT2013 Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. Please join us at the networking session at this event and visit our exhibition stand.

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