The Evolving Field of Citizen Science: Q&A with the Citizen Science Association

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February 11th, 2015

The field of citizen science is evolving. was founded in 2008 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help share resources for citizen science project leaders, and in the past three years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program has funded nearly two dozen projects that involve citizen science components. As foundational evidence for the current and potential impacts of citizen science mounts (see the CAISE reports on Public Participation in Scientific Research and Public Engagement with Science for more), the new Citizen Science Association has emerged to help share innovations and insights from the huge variety of scientists, educators, volunteers, evaluators, and learners who make up the citizen science field. Jennifer Shirk from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sarah Kirn from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute chatted with CAISE about the Association, their upcoming conference, and the citizen science field.

What is citizen science?

One of our new Board members, Muki Haklay, from University College London, blogged about the significance of citizen science being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, as follows:

citizen science n. scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.

Beyond this, citizen science is an opportunity for learning, for everyone involved. Scientists and non-scientists alike can start to look at the world together in new ways, and develop more of a shared understanding of what science means in society. There will be many conversations at our upcoming conference that will help expand and deepen how we think about citizen science.

Tell us about the Citizen Science Association and your upcoming, inaugural conference.

CSA’s mission is to: “Advance citizen science through communication, coordination, and education.” As of this writing we have over 3500 members, in only a year from our launch date. Our first conference is an official pre-conference event of the AAAS Annual Meeting, held in San Jose, California February 11-12th. We wanted a venue that spoke to all sciences, and also to the importance of public engagement in science. Over 600 people will attend the Citizen Science 2015 event. There will be two keynotes, five concurrent sessions, a poster reception, and many field-building conversations both in the conference center and online (#CitSci2015).

How did you identify the need for a new professional association?

This idea grew out of conversations at a 2012 Conference on Public Participation in Scientific Research, in Portland, Oregon. The 300 attendees overwhelmingly expressed an interest in some form of coordinating body for the field. Even prior to that there had been a groundswell of interest in efforts to build connections across projects, in order to share ideas and advance innovations.

What are the goals of the Citizen Science Association?

The goals of the CSA are to:

  • Establish a global community of practice for citizen science
  • Advance the field of citizen science through innovation and collaboration
  • Promote the value and impact of citizen science
  • Provide access to tools and resources that further best practice
  • Support communication and professional development services
  • Foster diversity and inclusion within the field

Our stated vision is for: “A world where people understand, value, and participate in science.” This will take work at both the local and global levels.

Tell us about your efforts to launch a global conversation.

Our membership spans six continents and over 60 countries so far. We are working with leadership of the European Citizen Science Association and the Citizen Science Network Australia to explore collaborations. We hope to facilitate a conversation about citizen science that is not restricted by geography, or by discipline. One effort to this end is CSA’s new journal, Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, which is already receiving submissions from around the world.

Who are your partners?

The CSA wouldn’t exist without the contributions of many, many individuals and organizations that are invested in its success. We are hosted by the Schoodic Institute, which is based at Acadia National Park. They have provided incredible leadership and support. I am thankful that my own institution, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has been behind the efforts to launch the CSA. Lists of our current board members, committee members, and conference sponsors show the breadth of support from many sectors.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned throughout the process?

When lines of communication are open, amazing conversations happen. We are slowly building up capacity to enable more open engagement, and are really thankful to everyone who is pushing for this (and bearing with us in the process). Challenging ideas will advance the field.

What advice do you have for people who are considering starting a citizen science project?

Starting from scratch is hard work – and thankfully, in many cases, it may not be necessary. Build on experience. Leverage existing platforms. Partner and collaborate wherever possible. Join the discussion listserv and ask questions. There are many, many incredibly smart, skilled, and experienced people in this field who can offer more targeted advice.

What are some of the upcoming plans for How is this related to the work that the Citizen Science Association is doing?

The Citizen Science Association is in negotiation to help support the release of a new and improved The site redesign (by Ideum, Inc.) is complete, and we’re revamping content. We are especially excited about new features that will allow people to share ideas and resources.

Is there anything else you think informal STEM professionals should know about the Citizen Science Association, or about citizen science writ large?

Citizen science programs offer opportunities for transformative STEM learning. The CSA has a dedicated working group focused on supporting high quality use of citizen science to meet a broad array of learning goals in formal and informal settings and with diverse audiences. This working group is hosting a symposium and an open session at our upcoming conference, to engage attendees in creating a vision for what STEM learning can look like in citizen science (spoiler alert – there is no ONE answer!). The symposium will also explore the barriers to achieving that vision, and the resources and exemplars that already exist or might be created to help us get there. We are very pleased that this effort is being supported by a conference grant from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal Science Learning program. For more information about the Citizen Science Association, visit their website at or follow on Twitter @CitSciAssoc.

photo: USFWS CC BY 2.0