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Science by the People

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Post by George Wyeth, cochair of the Law and Policy Working Group.

Prof. Abby Kinchy

The potential for science to be used by ordinary citizens as a tool for social change is both empowering and controversial. On the Law and Policy Working Group’s January teleconference, guest presenter Prof. Abby Kinchy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explored the issues surrounding the use of citizen science (or community-based science) in the policy sphere.  She drew from her recent book,Science by the People: Participation, Power and Politics of Public Knowledge (co-authored with Prof. Aya Hirata Kimura of the University of Hawaii).  

After studying citizen science (or “community science”) work in locations from Pennsylvania, to Mexico and Fukushima, Japan, Kinchy and Kimura drew the following conclusions. 

First, citizen science has the potential to be transformative:

  • allowing marginalized communities to be heard
  • producing knowledge from points of view that have not historically been recognized in academic institutions, and
  • ultimately creating political power. 

However, the use of science in this way has also created tensions, including:

  • dilemmas stemming from dependency on volunteer labor
  • tensions between activism and the desire to maintain an image of scientific credibility
  • questions about how to contextualize data in regulatory contacts (which prefer “value free” information)
  • issues regarding the scale at which data is aggregated as compared to the scale of political intervention.

The risks of depending on volunteer labor are illustrated by water monitoring efforts in Pennsylvania.  A major water pollution concern is fracking.  However, the areas where the greatest amount  of fracking activity occurs – often in rural areas — are not those where water monitoring volunteers are the most plentiful.  Volunteer monitoring efforts rely on the institutional support of colleges and universities or environmental organizations, which are usually based in more densely populated areas. Education and income may also impact the capacity of a community to mobilize a volunteer monitoring effort. More fundamentally, does citizen science shift the burden to communities to fill the gap when public funding for essential functions is cut?

The second issue is “activism” vs. “neutrality”. People focused on addressing a social or environmental problem see little value in science that is not specifically designed to answer policy-driven questions.  They also believe that research conducted by communities using rigorous protocols should be given equal weight. However, many scientists feel strongly that to be credible their work should be independent of actors with a policy agenda. In the case of fracking, industry boosters have tried to smear volunteer air monitoring projects as lacking credibility because they are led by environmental activists. Of course, industry-backed science also has an agenda. Nevertheless, the idea of “value-free” science is still a powerful idea for both scientists and decision makers, and it poses a dilemma for community-based research.     

Similarly, community-based science occurs in a social context, and that context is important to the significance of the results.  However, scientific research tends to isolate and narrow questions for focused research, taking them out of context and potentially limiting the value of the findings for policy purposes. Prof. Kinchy used an example from Mexico to illustrate how a citizen science project can emphasize social context while also answering specific scientific questions. In the early 2000s, a network of indigenous and peasant organizations carried out a study of their corn fields to determine whether genetically engineered plants were present–despite regulations against GMOs. They used their findings to open up a wider debate about the impacts of free trade policies with the United States, which was threatening the livelihoods of traditional corn producers. Prof. Kinchy cautioned that citizen science projects can sometimes have the opposite effect–narrowing the public debate to a specific scientific fact.

Finally, research tends to focus on a small scale for purposes of observation – localizing and personalizing environmental monitoring.  This creates the risk that the resulting findings direct attention to that scale for response purposes as well.  Prof. Kinchy provides the example of monitoring for radiation exposure after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan:  because monitoring was necessarily done at the level of exposed individuals, it implicitly tended to point toward action by those individuals – rather than government or other large organizations – to reduce exposures.  The research was sound, but those using it need to return it to the larger context in which it was conducted.

These tensions will not be easily or quickly avoided.  However, Prof. Kinchy suggests that they must be confronted and understood. 

Prof. Kinchy’s full presentation is available here.  Her book is available through Rutgers University Press and other booksellers. Please consider purchasing a copy of the book using through CSA’s Amazon Smile account. Be sure to set your supporting organization to “Citizen Science Association Inc.” below the search bar- CSA will receive a percentage of each sale. 


The Citizen Science Association’s Law & Policy Working Group is presenting a webinar at 2:30 pm Eastern time on June 11, on the topic of “Citizen Science and the First Amendment.”   Message cochairs at law_policy_cochair[@]citizenscience.org for connection details.

Three speakers will discuss laws that restrict citizen science and efforts to challenge those laws on First Amendment grounds.  First, Frank Sturges, a 2020 graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Environmental Law Review, will provide an introduction and overview of the intersection of citizen science and the First Amendment.  Next, Justin Pidot, Professor of Law and Co-director of the Environmental Law Program at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, will speak about the Wyoming “data trespass” law and the litigation challenging that law, in which he represented the plaintiffs.  Finally, Justin Marceau, Professor and Brooks Institute Faculty Research Scholar of Animal Law and Policy at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, will discuss the “ag-gag” laws of multiple states, which he has played a key role in challenging on First Amendment grounds.  Shaun Goho, Deputy Director of the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School, will moderate the discussion.

Posted on: June 8, 2020  |  Category: Blog, CSA Blog, CSA Working Groups, Law and Policy Working Group, News