Center For Ocean Sciences Education Excellence COSEE Alaska
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Student and Public Participation in Scientific Research

For an in-depth review of models for public participation in research and how to assess the impacts, see 2009 CAISE Inquiry Group Report: Public Participation in Scientific Research.

Involving communities in research
There are a number of ways to involve communities directly in your research including involvement in decision-making about large research programs (e.g., Community Advisory Councils), partnerships with community groups or governments to submit research proposals with relevance to local priorities, data collection by community members, and the contribution of local and traditional knowledge by community members.

Communities can play substantial roles in the research provided that consultation occurs at the initiation of a project and throughout its implementation, local hire and training occurs if feasible, and the community is provided the opportunity to review results in a form that they can readily understand. The use of local services can also be an important local economic benefit but is not the same as community involvement.

Each research project will has its own unique range of opportunities for community involvement. The important thing is to think through which communities are most likely to be affected by the conduct or results of your research and consult with someone in a local organization or government to brainstorm with them how best to involve the community.

Collaborations that include social scientists often yield rich understandings of the human dimensions of natural science research. Their involvement is critical to ensure that proper protocols are followed for the collection and dissemination of traditional knowledge, which is a form of intellectual property.

Some Alaskan research funders, such as the North Pacific Research Board, incorporate community involvement into the decision-making about ecosystem-scale marine research projects and fund community-based research projects that focus on human communities in the ecosystem context.

Community involvement works best with an adaptive management approach in which different strategies can be employed and adapted based on community responses.

Organizing a citizen science project
Citizen science involves the collection of scientific data by K-12 students and community members who have limited or no scientific expertise. Student and citizen volunteers can make valuable observations over large geographic areas and over long periods of time, which is particularly relevant to Alaska where the cost of scientists travelling to collect those observations can be very expensive and where baseline information is scanty. Community members are engaged in monitoring for invasive species, harmful algal blooms, water pollution, and unusual mortality events for seabirds or marine mammals throughout coastal Alaska.

Project design is critical to the success of citizen science. If you want quality data using citizen observers, then you need to design clear and reasonable data collection protocols, an effective recruiting and training program for volunteers, including teachers; and a data management plan with data quality control procedures. The protocols and data entry forms must be standardized, reproducible and easily accessible online. Any necessary equipment must also be standardized and made available to the volunteers. You will need to think of all potential sources of error and minimize them in project design and implementation.

Consider how you will motivate your volunteers to sustain their efforts. For K-12 students, working with an education partner to embed the data collection within a unit of study with lesson plans related to the science concepts and opportunities to analyze and interpret the data is effective as are scientist visits to schools to initiate the data collection.

Citizen science is not a traditional practice in Alaskan Native cultures. Certain elders are often considered the experts on specific aspects of the environment, such as sea ice. If you are seeking student volunteers, consider ways that interviews of elders and other long-time community members can be included in order to integrate Native knowledge with data collected by western science methods. (See the UAF Observing Locally, Connecting Globally program for ideas and sample interview forms.) If you are seeking adult volunteers, you should consider whether the people in the community where you would like to collect data require payment to be able to make participation a priority over other economic and subsistence activities. (This applies to the collection of traditional knowledge as well, where informants are often paid a stipend for their time.)

Student and citizen volunteers thrive on feed-back that they are making a real scientific contribution. Be sure to design communication strategies, like listservs and newsletters, to update volunteers on the progress of the overall project and the value of their contributions. Acknowledge citizen volunteers in scientific publications and presentations.

The value of citizen science for education and outreach may be higher than the value of the data collected in some situations. Citizen science project tend to attract participants with a strong interest in science and specialized skills (e.g., birdwatchers), so they will often be motivated to understand your research at a more technical and complex level than the general public and act upon the knowledge they gain as citizens.

Organizing an observation network
The importance of local and traditional knowledge is increasingly being recognized and integrated into scientific research. One integrative strategy is the observation network, which provides a structured system for specific types of observations to be brought together and made available to the different types of observers in the system in real-time or near real-time.

Observation networks can include scientists, citizen scientists, and local experts in particular types of observations. In Alaska and throughout Alaska, they are now being used for sea ice observations at local and regional scales. If you are interested in organizing or contributing to an observation network, review the examples as models for what would be involved.