I Try to Work With These People. Scientists, Citizen Science, and Public Engagement

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Jennifer Shirk, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Scientists working with citizen science have the opportunity to engage with the public as part of their projects. Commonly accepted public engagement roles for scientists, as traditionally impartial, technical experts, are those of reporting and interpreting research. These roles, however, line up with the deficit model of public engagement; an approach that research suggests has limited impact, particularly in contexts where scientists may have interests in influencing action or change. We explore the interests scientists articulate and the roles they take on when engaging the public in socially complex conservation contexts as part of their citizen science. We conducted in-depth interviews with nine PhD scientists who demonstrated sustained involvement with citizen science initiatives as part of their careers, criteria that suggest professional investment in the research outcomes of their citizen science work. A semi-structured script specifically invited narrative accounts, not reports, through the use of open-ended prompts (e.g., “Tell me how you became involved in this work”). Interviews were recorded and transcripts were used to construct first-person “practitioner profiles” for narrative interpretation of the interests scientists articulate and the roles they describe throughout their various citizen science activities. Despite traditions that want to portray scientists as conducting clinically detached and technically minded research, these narratives reveal scientists who are productively stepping into additional, relational roles. They show us scientists engaging with the public, not just reporting and interpreting their science. They are engaging diverse values, listening and responding, and facilitating learning and action – integrated, relational work. Although the roles they take on differ, these individuals arguably see and value building relationships as relevant to the work of conservation. While these roles are distinct from conducting scientific research, the narratives show us ways that such additional roles can be commensurate with – and in some cases essential to – roles in the production of knowledge. These narratives enrich and complicate theoretical understandings of appropriate roles for scientists in relationship to the public. They invite consideration of shared social and scientific purposes, and how relationships can serve to balance research rigor and relevance. They show us that it is possible to make a space for relational work while still conducting technical scientific research as part of a multidimensional practice.