In 2003, I completed my MSc project, entitled Space Exploration Advocacy in the 21st Century: The Case for Participatory Science. In it, I argued that contrary to popular belief, there was a lot of latent public interest in science in general and in space exploration in particular but that unfortunately, there was very little for enthusiasts to actually do to support their cause. Advocacy was mostly limited to donating money to a well-meaning society or association and writing letters to local government representatives.
I went on to argue that a far better approach to advocacy was to increase the number of ways someone could become involved and suggested the best method for doing this was something I dubbed ‘participatory science.’ In order to be classified as a participatory science project, the project would have to have the following characteristics:
- It must involve both scientists and non-scientists working together, preferably in real time or near real time.
- Non-scientists must not be the subject of the research.
- The primary purpose of the project or program must be original research and/or development.
- A participatory science project or program must involve one or more of the following: observation, data collection, data aggregation, data processing, theory/model construction, analysis and interpretation, or development.
I also said that in an ideal world, participatory science projects should have the following characteristics in order to be effective:
- Non-scientists must contribute to or participate in the science of the project or program in a real and non-trivial manner.
- Participatory science must be geared toward adults.
- Participants must be given the opportunity to learn.
- It should allow for either passive or active participation, especially active, but preferably both.
- It should have public outreach as its secondary objective.
- Participatory science projects should be used in any discipline and in either pure or applied research questions.
- Organizers should allow participants to help facilitate the project.
- It should allow the balance of power in the relationship between non-scientists and scientists to move toward equality.
- A participatory science endeavour should include some mechanism for publicly recognizing and rewarding non-scientists in the same way scientists have recognition systems set up by and for their peers.
At the time, the phrase ‘citizen science’ was in use, but it had variable meanings depending on context. For example, it has been applied to attempts to evaluate scientific arguments in the context of social issues. While I still believe participatory science is a better, more accurate term, I will admit it is something of a mouthful. And of course, since I wrote that paper, there have been some new developments in this area and the term ‘citizen science’ has come into wider use. And since the whole point of the concept is to make science more accessible to the general public, I’m happy to use the term.