Volunteers in civilian science are almost entirely white


Every day, volunteers around the world contribute to research through ‘citizen science’. Civil science can be anything from counting migratory birds to measuring rainfall or even tracking COVID-19 outbreaks. Civil science helps researchers collect more data than they can work on their own. People involved in these projects also benefit from acquiring knowledge of the fields in which they work and learning skills.

We are two researchers studying biology, the environment and the role of civil science in these fields. In a new document published on June 22, 2022 in BioScience, we used data from surveys from 2016 to 2019 to better understand the demographics of civilian scientists.

Graphics of many colorful silhouettes of people.
Civic science volunteers are usually white, well educated, and work in science, technology, engineering, or math.
ajijchan / iStock via Getty Images

Several small studies have found that civilian science volunteers tend to be white, well-educated, and high-income. But this homogeneity of participants is well known among researchers, and few collect detailed demographic data on participants in civil science.

In our study, we collected data on race, income, and other demographic information. In total we received 3894 answers. Most of the answers – 3191 – come from Christmas Bird Count for 2016, the world’s longest-running science project for citizens related to birds. Since 1900, thousands of people in the United States and abroad have counted the birds around Christmas and reported the results to the Audubon Society.

We also collected data from 280 contributors to Candid Critters, a project that uses camera tracks to study wild mammals, and from 423 members of SciStarter.org, an online list of civic research projects.

Overall, 95% of respondents identify as white. The lack of racial diversity was striking for each sample, with 96% of participants in both Christmas Bird and Candid Critters identifying themselves as white, and 88% of SciStarter respondents said the same. While only 14% of the US population has a university degree or vocational education, about half of the respondents in our study have these degrees. In addition, while only 6% of the U.S. population has a career in science, technology, engineering, or math, nearly half of the respondents in our study from the three data sources worked in STEM fields.

Problems of lack of diversity

Participation in civic science is about personal gain such as learning new skills and building community. If civic science reaches only educated white scientific professionals, then it concentrates the benefits of participation among this group.

Furthermore, if one of the aims of civil science is to increase scientific literacy and trust in science, it cannot achieve this goal if it preaches to people, reaching only people who are already working in science.

Finally, the lack of diversity in civil science can even compromise the quality of research. For example, one study found that volunteers who monitor the water – who are mostly well-educated and white – sampled areas where environmental problems affect disproportionately poor flower communities.

Black man with binoculars in the woods.
Many organizations and initiatives, such as Black Birders Week, try to involve people from different backgrounds in civic research projects and science in general.
AP Photo / Jacqueline Larma

Initiatives such as Black Birders Week seek to increase the visibility and concerns of people of color who are interested in nature and science. SciStarter, where one of us is volunteering as director of research collaboration, is making a long-term effort to develop inclusive civic science programs. Through partnerships with community-based groups, schools, churches, companies and libraries, some recent SciStarter initiatives have engaged more than 40% of non-white participants.

Reforming civil science with inclusive and equitable practices will not only make science better, but will also spread the benefits of these projects more equitably and ultimately help to bring more diverse perspectives to science as a whole.

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