My commitment to the extremity of (citizen) science

As a student, I would like here to highlight why I made the choice to commit to citizen science.

During my last year of Master’s study, I co-wrote a little book named “Our relationship with the world: thinking complexity”. It discusses what is not taught at school. It is never said in school that each thought is based on a conception of the world. This is not by happenstance if at the political, the economic, or the ecological level, the ambient discourse proposed to the citizens is overall homogeneous. This is the symptom of a wide range of thoughts relying of a specific way of thinking, namely based on simplicity. Under the lens of simplicity, human beings, society and nature appear to be separated entities.

As a young person, considering this assessment, what could I do? Rather than go into the political arena and in fine very likely identically reproduce what is already done, it seems wiser to firstly interrogate how to bring back meaning-making, namely to explore or develop other conceptions of the world able to align nature, society and human beings. That is a highly shared preoccupation these days, especially among young people. This question is fundamental. It gives rise to many other interrogations, such as: how to bring more meaning in school? How to inject creativity into school? How to think beyond the boundaries of disciplines? How to consider that children or students could generate ground-breaking solutions to shape the future? How to think the big history linking all human beings; the one containing at once the Big Bang, the stars, the planets, the emergence of life as well as human societies …? These questions can be condensed into one single one: how to think complexity?

Here is what is not taught at school, nor at university. It relies on an apparently very simple question: how to think complexity? Thinking complexity requires all kinds of views and intelligences. However, we must first understand how to gather them. This is where citizen science comes in. There is no precise definition of citizen science. It is perhaps better this way, so that citizen science remains open to new innovative contributions. Overall, citizen science can be defined as a range of activities where professional and non-professional scientists work together to answer a question raised by a professional scientist.

The UCL ExCiteS Research team pushes the concept of citizen science to its very limits by suggesting that all people, including non-literate or stigmatised people, can take part in science. At the very beginning, they can define by themselves a question that they want to tackle. Then, even better, they can resolve their question by collecting and analysing data. For instance, the hunter-gatherers of the Congo rainforest decided to address illegal poaching and logging. After the indigenous community defined their research question, the professional scientists supported the community to answer it. They gave to the latter the means to resolve the question by collecting data with an appropriate digital technology and analysing it through maps (see 7 other case studies here).

Why did I commit to a PhD on this fantastic project of the UCL ExCiteS Team? Because it constitutes a practical experiment which tests a solution to one of the most heightening challenge of the 21st century: how to address the complexity of the world? If today we are not able to tackle this challenge, this is because we are still in a model of the past in which only a minority of intelligences have a say. Yet we could easily go over this model from the moment that the criteria of selection is not yet “I am the best” but rather “I recognise that the other knows something and I think we can build on this knowledge”. Citizen science undertakes the next step, namely, to understand how to co-produce knowledge together. 

Why did I commit to Extreme Citizen Science? Because if we demonstrate that the citizens can efficiently face the social, economic, and environmental challenges when we start from their needs and when we empower them in the scientific process, then we change the conception of the world. We go from a world based on competition to a world based on cooperation. And therefore, the whole political model is disrupted. In my opinion, science is, first and foremost, a political commitment towards more social equality.

Fabien Moustard

To discuss this further, please email me at f.moustard@ucl.ac.uk

Acknowledgements:

As a student, I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have taught me what is not taught at school, especially Muki Haklay, Jerome Lewis, François Taddei, Philippe Destatte and Edgar Morin, but also ExCiteS team’s members and the institutions enabling this commitment: the University College London (UCL) and the European Research Council (ERC).


ECSAnVis project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 694767, ERC-2015-AdG)

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