Mass effects for the arts as well as science

October 27, 2011

I was pleased to read Darrel Ince's article about the rise of the "citizen scientist" ("Powered by the people", 20 October). Citizens, and the oft-maligned amateur, have been involved in scientific enquiry since before it emerged as the discipline we know today. Professionalisation and questions of trust have served to dissuade scientists from involving citizens in their research projects. But ongoing spending and funding cuts, the scale of global problems and the range of the public's expertise and enthusiasm make "citizen science" an appealing - not to mention affordable - solution, and the supply of potential citizen researchers is to a degree unlimited.

But I think we can push Ince's point further. First, let's not leave the humanities and the social sciences out in the cold. They too could (and are slowly beginning to) feel the warmth that citizen contributions can bring, particularly when we think of the volunteers involved in preservation and heritage, private collectors, local historians, re-enactment societies and so on.

Second, the internet has served to open up the opportunities for citizens to engage with universities and science, yet only a small proportion of the population actively engages in "citizen science". We need to work on new ways of enticing would-be participants to contribute.

I agree that partnerships, particularly with pre-existing amenity societies, are a step in the right direction. However, notwithstanding current political thinking on bolstering communities and volunteering, the organisation of a national network of citizen enthusiasm, incorporating social media, local hubs (where participants could gather) and universities, requires urgent attention.

Citizens have always been enthusiastic and willing to contribute: we now need to think more creatively about how to harness their power.

Hilary Geoghegan, Associate research Fellow in geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

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