In a new study, researchers at North Carolina State University found that while many volunteers who sign up to help gather scientific discoveries are highly motivated and committed, these projects do not attract a diverse set of volunteers. The findings could help researchers design and structure future projects, as well as identify priorities for recruiting volunteers.
“Participation in civic science doesn’t go as far in different segments of the public as we had hoped in the field,” said Karen Cooper, author of the study and an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources in North Carolina. “We see that most of the volunteers are mostly highly educated white people, with a high percentage of STEM professionals. We don’t even reach other types of professionals. That’s part of the wake-up call that’s going on in the field right now. “
Through research crowdsourcing, sometimes known as ‘citizen science’, volunteers make a major contribution to science. They helped track where North American monarch butterflies fly in the winter and set up cameras to track animals in the wild. The field of civil science has grown and the researchers wanted to know who these volunteers are, what types of research they are involved in and how many different projects they are involved in.
“The last decade has seen an explosion of civic science projects across disciplines and models, both online and offline,” said lead author Bradley Alf, a graduate student at NC State. “We were curious what participation looks like in terms of the number and types of projects that people do.”
Between 2016 and 2019, researchers surveyed 3,894 people who volunteered for two different individual research projects, as well as people who had accounts at SciStarter.org, a large online catalog of civic science projects. The two projects were the Christmas Bird Count, the Audubon National Society’s annual winter bird census, and Candid Critters, a project led by researchers and partners from NC State to track wildlife using camera traps. In addition to the surveys, the researchers tracked the online activity of 3,649 participants in SciStarter.org.
When they looked at the demographics of volunteers who participated in many projects, they found that participants were more likely to be white, work in STEM fields, and hold higher degrees.
Less than 5% of the nearly 3,600 volunteers who answered questions about their demographics in the studies identified as blacks, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Indians or Hispanics. In addition, nearly half of the volunteers in the sample worked in scientific fields, while half had higher or other higher degrees.
Researchers said the lack of diversity is embarrassing, as participating in these projects can benefit volunteers by offering educational opportunities and ways to learn about their communities. But they also said efforts are being made to address the differences by recruiting through corporate programs for volunteers and churches.
“Through these projects, volunteers can learn about science, but also about their own communities,” Alf said. “If these benefits are concentrated in people who already have great access to power in society and to science in general, then civic science does a disservice to those who are not served.”
One of their main findings was that many volunteers are willing to participate in many projects. In fact, 77% of all volunteers who studied – through surveys and online – joined a number of research projects. Some volunteers were “super-users”, joining up to 50 projects.
“If your goal as a researcher is to understand civic scientists and the impact your experience can have on them, but you only analyze them through one project, you probably get a simplistic idea of who this person is and the richness of their experience,” Alf said. .
The researchers said their findings suggest that scientists should expect to share volunteers, so they should coordinate their efforts. Some projects are likely to serve as “portals” to civil science more broadly. Researchers can structure projects as part of a trajectory, with volunteers gaining skills as they progress in increasingly challenging work.
“This opens up the possibility of the skeleton of civilian scientific experience,” Alf said.
The work appears in BioScience. Co-authors include Lincoln R. Larson and Robert R. Dunn of North Carolina; Sarah E. Fitch of The Nature Conservancy; Maria Sarova of the Thriving Earth Exchange, an initiative of the American Geophysical Union; and Darlene Cavalier of the School of the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University and founder and director of SciStarter. The study was supported by grant № 1713562 of the National Science Foundation. The material is based on work supported by the Scholarship Program for Graduate Research of the National Grant Science Foundation № DGE-1746939.
Note to the editors: Following is the summary.
“Civil Science as an Engagement Ecosystem: Implications for Learning and Enhanced Participation”
Authors: Bradley C. Alf, Karen B. Cooper, Lincoln R. Larson, Robert R. Dunn, Sarah E. Fitch, Mariah Sarova and Darlene Cavalier.
DOI: 10.1093 / biosci / biac035
Published online in BioScience on June 22, 2022
abstractly: Most research on civil science participants is project-oriented, based on the assumption that volunteers test a single project. Contrary to this assumption, the responses to the survey (n = 3,894) and digital tracking data (n = 3,649) from volunteers who collectively participated in 1,126 unique projects revealed that participation in multiple projects was the norm. Only 23% of the volunteers are single (who have participated in only one project), and the participants in many projects are divided equally between specialists in disciplines (39%) and specialists in disciplines (38% joined projects with different disciplinary topics) and uneven between regime specialists (67%) and wrenches (33% participated in online and offline projects). Public engagement was narrow: participants in many projects were eight times more likely to be white and five times more likely to have higher degrees than the general population. We offer a volunteer-oriented framework that explores how the dynamic accumulation of experience in the project ecosystem can support broad learning objectives and inclusive civic science.