Harnessing and widening public participation in science


The power of digital is helping turn people around the UK into amateur scientists working on real research projects – deepening engagement with our collections, science and nature, and accelerating the pace of research. It represents innovative development of a broad culture of public participation and interest in activities focused on understanding and engaging with the natural world that has been a distinctive part of UK life over more than two centuries.  Answering important questions – such as those about climate change and the diversity of life – requires a lot of data, and digital platforms mean that people anywhere can take part in capturing and sharing these data, such as recording observations about wildlife. Thousands of people across the UK take part in the Natural History Museum’s citizen science programme, which includes the Big Seaweed Search, collecting observations of seaweed to help vital marine research, and Earthworm Watch, which is monitoring how human activities affect the health of soils. Smartphones allow people to take part – at scale – in citizen science projects anywhere. We have also produced guides to setting up citizen science projects, which help other organisations across the country to take part, and are planning a wider national initiative to involve students in outdoor research and encourage scientific habits of mind.

Digital platforms also allow us to unlock the potential of our collections more quickly, as people anywhere can be involved in digitising collections such as by transcribing written labels and registers. Transcription is a key challenge for museum digitisation, making data searchable and computable. More than 1,000 digital volunteers took part in the Natural History Museum’s Miniature Lives Magnified project, extracting research data from specimen labels on microscope slides.  Recently, we’ve developed a new short-term volunteering opportunity, called “visiteering”, which involves individual or corporate visitors aged over 16 learning about collections while taking part in citizen science. It allows people to make a meaningful contribution to the Museum’s work without requiring the long-term commitment of regular volunteers, widening our pool of potential volunteers to include those otherwise committed to full time work or study or who have geographic barriers. This scheme has proved extremely popular with all days offered heavily oversubscribed, and it is potentially a model that could be followed by other organisations.  Since the programme launched at the end of 2015, we’ve welcomed nearly 200 visiteers for a day at a time who collectively have helped to liberate (transcribe) the data from over 15,000 specimen records across four different collections. A key element is that the experience is meaningful for volunteers: All have reported benefits from the experience, including developing new skills and knowledge ranging from species details and preparation, information searches and referencing to improved geographical understanding.


Why the contribution is important


More than four in five people in the UK live in urban areas, and with continued urbanisation, people are increasingly disconnected from nature. Connectedness to nature is important because it is linked to health and wellbeing, while research shows children who are disengaged from nature tend not to be motivated to care for it or to recognise its importance to society. Participants in citizen science and other volunteers report a greater understanding of our natural world; are encouraged to develop a scientific state of mind, and may be taking the first step towards a scientific career. The UK has a very strong science base with many industries based on science and technology at the forefront of the economy; it’s important we train enough STEM workers to fill the jobs of the future and schemes such as citizen science play an important role. Digital platforms are particularly well suited to widening participation in culture and science - reaching people across the UK, and enabling those who don’t visit museums to collaborate. For example, we have anecdotal evidence that some people who take part in our crowdsourcing projects have physical disabilities that mean they can’t work, but they enjoy making a positive contribution through crowdsourcing.


by NaturalHistoryMuseum on August 11, 2017 at 10:48AM

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