Citizen Science and Politics in 2017: An Interview with Dr. Andrea Wiggins

Citizen Science and Politics in 2017: An Interview with Dr. Andrea Wiggins

Science has taken center stage in national conversations as the shift of laws and regulations signal a changing political landscape. Public demonstrations, including April’s upcoming March For Science indicate a considerable amount of energy toward advocating for the importance of science in our daily lives. That importance can become even more apparent through initiatives that involve public input and participation; Citizen Science, a method of conducting research that involves members of the general public, “gives people more ways to actively demonstrate their support for science and science-based decision-making, which is both personally empowering and collectively powerful,” says Dr.  Andrea Wiggins, an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies and director of the Open Knowledge Lab at UMD.

Dr. Wiggins studies citizen science project design and management to inform the development of infrastructures to support large-scale science collaboration, along with issues related to data management and sharing. Her research focuses on exploring the design, management, and technology configurations that generate optimal outcomes for technology-enabled collaborations between diverse stakeholders. Dr. Wiggins serves on several working groups and advisory boards for citizen science projects and open data initiatives across a variety of scientific disciplines, and she regularly advises federal agencies and nonprofit organizations on citizen science project and technology design.

Wiggins is interested in how ordinary people become involved in meaningful real-world research through citizen science projects, and how technologies can help. Her research centers on design and evolution of sociotechnical systems for large-scale collaboration and knowledge production. Her current work focuses on the role of technologies in citizen science, evaluating individual and collective performance and productivity in open collaboration, and open data ecosystems in the sciences.  We interviewed her on how her research through the iSchool interacts with citizen science, the current political landscape, and what comes next.

Can you describe citizen science for a broad audience? Citizen science is a type of research project where members of the public help out with data collection, processing, and other key research tasks. Research has been done this way for a long time in a few specific fields like astronomy, but the Internet has created new ways to coordinate and communicate that support public participation in science at a scale that was never before possible. Literally millions of people around the world volunteer their spare time to help advance science!

Why is citizen science important in 2017? The future of federal spending on science is suddenly becoming uncertain, and citizen science is often adopted to address resource shortages. So it could become even more important for supporting science in our national parks, for example, since they already receive too little funding to fully support their mandate to monitor and preserve the parks' cultural and natural resources.  A lot of social and environmental justice issues, which are increasingly documented initially through citizen science before a regulatory agency conducts in-depth investigation, will likely become even more important as the current administration continues removing regulations that ensure clean air and water.

What excites you about your work? I’ve always loved science, and my research supports meaningful science experiences for members of the public as well as stronger outcomes from the science, so it’s easy to stay excited about work that broadens the playing field in science. Because citizen science is really diverse in practice, I also get to learn more about other disciplines all the time, which never gets boring. For example, my recent research has involved working with ornithologists, botanists, marine biologists, and astrophysicists on topics like biodiversity, pollination, and aurora, so I learn about things like a type of aurora that’s recently been discovered and is currently called “Steve” because they don’t yet know what causes it.

What kind of response has there been to your research? I was one of the earliest social science researchers studying the phenomenon itself, so the practitioner community has been incredibly supportive because my research helps them address challenges that require outside perspectives and demonstrate value. I’ve given invited presentations about citizen science to audiences around the world, but talking with government scientists has been especially rewarding. For example, some of my advice on data quality influenced a law that was recently passed, which was important because it directs federal agency scientists to apply their expertise and decide on a case-by-case basis which data is good enough to meet their research needs, instead of mandating a one-size-fits-all approach that wouldn’t really work in most cases.

What comes next for you? I’m starting a new project with a colleague at UW and an iSchool PhD student to better understand and describe the state of volunteer training in citizen science, which has never been comprehensively examined. We’re interested in finding out the most common methods for training volunteers, the types of materials and technologies used for training, and the resources, processes, and principles that contribute to effective training and outcomes for different kinds of citizen science projects. We think that taking a close look at how training is being supported in different projects will show us where successful strategies can be adapted for broader use and help identify how technologies can be designed and deployed more effectively.