Why universities need citizen science

Research projects that actively involve the public not only enable universities to connect with their local communities but are essential for a healthy, creative, inclusive research system

Less than two years ago, many people knew little about vaccines and how they are manufactured. Today, the subject of vaccines is being discussed across the country and the world and the pandemic has increased public awareness of the importance of research to tackling the challenges society faces.

There is however still a gulf between most research and many sections of society so how can we bridge that gap – or even better, how can we remove the gap altogether to enable a more inclusive research system that the public can more actively and meaningfully contribute to?

One effective way for research universities to do this is to bring the public directly into the research process through citizen science initiatives. This is illustrated by a series of investments recently announced by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) where the public will work with five universities to deliver groundbreaking research. These projects demonstrate the ability of citizen science to shift the relationship between universities and society.

Take the plastic crisis, for example. Whilst there is widespread understanding of the need to address the problems associated with microplastics, it can be difficult for people to see how they can contribute to finding effective solutions. To address this, the University of the West of England is working with local people and community groups to investigate the extent of microplastic pollution in the home and establish a better understanding of where airborne microplastics originate from. This will generate valuable knowledge that will help to tackle the plastic crisis whilst enabling local people and researchers to develop effective research partnerships and learn new skills.

Inviting the public to contribute to research introduces new perspectives, expertise, knowledge and ideas

When people are empowered to contribute to research it also has the potential to influence public policy. The experiences and expertise of Bristol citizens and academics from the University of Bristol will be brought together in a project addressing the history and contemporary legacies of transatlantic slavery and racism. As part of this, the university will work with Bristol City Council and local teachers to examine how racism and the legacy of slavery affects the experiences of people of colour in the education sector.

Crucially, inviting the public to contribute to research introduces new perspectives, expertise, knowledge and ideas into the research process. In another project, young people with lived experience of mental health problems will work together with researchers from the University of York to rethink the priorities for mental health research. This will ensure that research better reflects the needs of those living with mental health issues and prioritises what is important to them. Bringing the lived experiences of diverse groups of people into research in this way maximises the impact and benefits of the research to society.

These are just a few examples of the incredible potential of citizen science projects to help research universities actively involve the public in research, introducing alternative views and expertise that improve the quality of their research. If research remains a closed system, excluding and marginalising people from the research process, universities risk being isolated from the very people that their research aims to benefit. This will only serve to widen the gap between research and society, to the detriment of them both.

Citizen science projects alone are not the solution but initiatives such as these are an effective way for universities to build a better, more inclusive research system; one that embraces and values the different forms of expertise and knowledge that exist beyond the university.

You might also like: UKRI launches £1.5 million citizen science project

New UKRI funding model to ‘accelerate impact’ of research

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