As citizen science flourishes, thanks in part to social media, so do the channels we use to communicate. In response, we sometimes create a filter bubble around us, tending to gravitate toward communications that reinforce our own worldview while blocking others.
The tendency to selective listening prevents the formation of a consensus on the great questions of our time. At worst, misinformation, fake news and bias permeate discussions and undermine trust.
Dr Jason Pridmore, Associate Professor at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, coordinates the TRESCA project which examines how to build trust in science through better communication of scientific findings.
Although his team has encountered growing distrust of established institutions and media, the news isn’t all bad.
“We tend to trust our friends and family, their political views or their views on science, before taking the next step of looking at science communicators,” said the Dr. Pridmore.
At the same time, his team also found that we had a surprisingly high willingness to fact-check a piece of information.
“People don’t just voluntarily listen to everything. They got a little more cautious,” he said. “I think the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to question the information we receive, and people are ready to fact-check and see things for themselves.”
The TRESCA project has partnered with Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell, an animation studio and YouTube channel with over 18 million subscribers.
Using stylized animations, German channel Kurzgesagt specializes in explaining complex science topics in an easily understandable way. The channel’s videos have accumulated nearly 2 billion views.
On the challenges facing science experts and communicators, Kurzgesagt has created a highly successful science communication video with over 9 million views at the time of writing.
“One of our most interesting findings is that the degree of production is actually correlated in our research with the confidence we have,” Dr. Pridmore said. Kurzgesagt’s world-class animations and production values have a direct effect on the trust people place in them.
Rosa Arias is CEO and founder of scienceforchange.eu and coordinator of the NEWSERA project which aims to strengthen the potential of citizen science as a science communication tool. She agrees that prioritizing high-quality and responsive communication materials is essential, especially for citizen science projects.
“As citizen science practitioners, you need to know how to communicate effectively with citizens if you want to engage them, with policymakers if you want to impact policy, with industry if you want to engage them, and with other scientists to share and validate data,” Arias said. “That means you have to adapt your messages, your channels, your strategies all the time.”
All subjects apply
There are 38 citizen science initiatives participating in the NEWSERA project, based in Spain, Italy and Portugal. The multitude of topics they cover demonstrates that a citizen science approach can be applied to a surprisingly wide range of societal challenges and scientific fields, including the social sciences and humanities.
RiuNet, for example, is a citizen science application that guides citizens in diagnosing the ecological state of a river. This data can contribute to better freshwater management and conservation.
Genigma involves citizens in building genomic reference maps that will help researchers understand which parts of the human genome play a role in the development of cancer.
The Cities at Night project invites people to explore a catalog of nighttime images of cities and help categorize them. This may have implications for human health, light pollution and ecology.
“The projects generate a lot of data that is not immediately accessible to citizens. But the data is relevant to society because it addresses issues of concern to citizens,” Arias said.
NEWSERA helps projects develop tailor-made communication plans with indicators to measure the effectiveness and impact of communication activities towards specific target audiences.
This support helps projects understand how to present and communicate their results in a way that makes them more digestible for the public, scientists, policy makers and industry.
Access to the personal dimension
Trained as an engineer, Arias is an expert in olfactory pollution of industrial origin. She has developed an app, OdourCollect, which gives people the ability to record their perception of smells, wherever they are, so they can monitor it and act on it.
“With a topic like odor pollution, citizens get involved because they are concerned about the type of pollution they are exposed to in their daily lives and they want to do something about it,” said Arias. “And by using an app like OdourCollect, citizens become science communicators themselves.”
Active participants use communication differently from scientists, journalists or policy makers, with messages aimed at their fellow citizens.
“They also use different channels,” Arias said. “For example, they talk to each other daily in their neighborhood.”
The personal dimension that citizen science brings to science communication is also highlighted by Silke Voigt-Heucke. She is responsible for citizen science research at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.
“To be trusted, you have to build personal relationships, and that’s why grassroots citizen science initiatives are so important,” Voigt-Heucke said. “They can help people come together around an activity that could be decoupled from all the other things that divide them.”
science is open
“Citizen science projects can show how open science is to suggestions, ideas and co-creation,” she said.
She coordinates the development of the EU-Citizen.Science project, a platform to connect all existing citizen science projects in Europe.
“The idea was that the platform would be a network of networks,” Voigt-Heucke said. Over the past decade, citizen science has become established across Europe. The projects have obtained significant funding and many national platforms have been created.
“What was missing was a platform that could connect them all,” she said.
NEWSERA will use the EU-Citizen.Science platform as an open-access repository for the communication plans they will produce. The plans are detailed guidelines on how to communicate the results and benefits of citizen science that practitioners and curious citizens can consult.
“It helps citizen science practitioners feel that they are no longer alone,” Arias said.