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‘Citizen science’ is the way to encourage critical thinking

Meaningful dialogue about the nature and importance of science and research has already begun

Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique: members of the public use webcams to detail the wildlife captured throughout the park. Photograph: Getty Images

In an age where information is readily available at one’s fingertips, it can be difficult to interpret what material is trustworthy and what facts may be distorted. Peer-reviewed research, and the quality thereof, has become increasingly important and a healthy criticality is required in reading news about research and statistics related to our everyday lives. It is one of the aims of the EU to increase the scientific literacy of citizens in order to support each person in making informed decisions about changes in, for example, society, politics, environment and education. Our new Junior Cycle science curriculum has paralleled this goal in aiming to support students “to make informed decisions about many of the local, national and global challenges and opportunities they will be presented with”.

An important part of scientific literacy is a familiarity with the nature of science – appreciating how scientists work and how scientific ideas are modified over time. In finding out what constituted the smallest building blocks of nature, JJ Thomson had proposed the pudding model of the atom and it was not until 1911 that Rutherford established that the atom was, in fact, mostly empty space. From the 17th century, Newton’s laws of gravity were upheld as fundamental laws of nature until Einstein’s theory of relativity demonstrated their limitations. Contrary to commonly-held views on science, science is not a pre-ordained structure of ready-made facts but rather a collective body of knowledge which is constantly being refined and reviewed. One way of developing an understanding of the nature of science is through participation in “citizen science”.

Collaboration

Citizen science is a collaboration between scientists and members of the public who work together to answer questions about the world around us. Participating citizens can share their knowledge of local areas or issues, while also developing their knowledge and scientific expertise by participating in research. At the same time, scientists benefit through their collaboration with people who may have different insights or knowledge of issues, while also gaining access to a larger span of data or analysts. Citizen science has been growing in popularity around the world, and research across a number of scientific fields has benefited from such projects. In Canada, the Plant Watch programme has tracked the timing of the growth of common plans and demonstrated the impact of rising temperature on the timing of plant development. GalaxyZoo has volunteers across the globe finding patterns in data to help classify the millions of galaxies captured in telescopic images. And at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, members of the public use webcams to detail the wildlife captured throughout the park. Across Europe, citizen science projects have been conducted to measure air quality, record wildlife and monitor earthquakes. By involving more than the trained researchers in projects, there is potential for meaningful dialogue about the nature and importance of science and scientific research.

Volunteers

In Ireland, several such projects have been run with large numbers of volunteers who have given their time and expertise in generating data on Irish wildlife and the environment. Projects such as Clean Coasts or BioBlitz have provided opportunity for volunteers and students to find out more about the world around them, while also building a more detailed picture for agencies such as the National Biodiversity Data Centre and Environmental Protection Agency. Participating in such projects has been found to develop participants’ understanding about the scientific process of science and encourage participants’ interest in science.

There is increased focus on encouraging more Citizen Science projects across Europe as a way of promoting creativity, scientific literacy and innovation. Katrin Vohland, director of the Cost (Co-operation in Science and Technology) pan-European Citizen Science group funded by the EU, has noted that such projects provide potential for the concerns and findings of citizens to be valued by various scientific communities and highlight issues in political arenas. Citizen science projects also have the potential to rebuild trust in peer-reviewed research, which appears to be ever more fragile in a world of alternative facts.

The new science syllabus encourages students to learn from the scientific process instead of learning off by heart. It is important that learners of all ages have opportunity to take part in scientific endeavours that can cultivate a sense of criticality about facts and figures fed to us in the media. From local biodiversity to comets in deep space, participating in citizen science has the potential to encourage skills of critical thinking, which we hope to foster and develop in all of our citizens.

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is an assistant professor in the UCD school of mathematics and statistics