Increasing science capital with citizen science

It is far too tempting to be dismissive of emerging buzzwords or sparkly new concepts as merely the re-emergence of established wisdom dressed in the latest fashionable ‘new-speak’. Occasionally however, a term will come along that helps us re-evaluate the place science has in society. The term ‘science capital’, a measure of an individual’s relationship with science, is just such a word, and to pluck another buzzy phrase out of the zeitgeist, it offers a chance to ‘check your privilege’ (perhaps a topic for another post!).

It is also an opportunity for scientists and science communicators to think about how best to engage all of society with science. With citizen science projects in particular, there is great potential to incorporate the idea of science capital, and build projects using the insight offered from this viewpoint. More on that later…

Firstly, however, what exactly do we mean by science capital? Well this rather neat animation by King’s College London is a good place to start. Their likening of science capital to a ‘holdall’ bag, containing all the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences and resources that you acquire through life, is a useful one. Their further breakdown of science capital into eight dimensions (see below), is also helpful as a framework for understanding science capital and its sources.

Like capital of the shiny monetary kind, the amount of science capital that an individual has is significantly determined by the lottery of their birth. It is also shaped by the attitudes of the community and family they grow up in and the resources available to them, such as educational qualifications and extended social networks. As a result, science capital is not distributed equally. In addition, feedback loops exist where those with greater science capital are more likely to participate in science activities, such as citizen science projects, which then further increases their science capital.

But why does it matter? Well the ASPIRES study, which looked at career aspirations in 10 – 14 year olds discovered that, despite healthy overall aspirations, and generally positive views of science and scientists, only approximately 15 per cent of individuals wanted to become a scientist. Interestingly, it suggests the greatest factor in their aspirations was not their experience at school, but instead the amount of science capital held within the family.

Schools obviously remain critical, but it is clear that activities with the potential to involve and engage families are important. Citizen science projects have a proven ability to do this, and many, such as the OPAL and Natural History Museum environmental surveys, actively facilitate participation within a family, with easy to use resources and guides.

Now if we look back at the eight dimensions of science capital (below) citizen science clearly incorporates most of these dimensions. Projects are of course diverse, and the potential with which they can increase family science capital will be primarily dependent on two things: the quality and length of a family’s engagement with the project, and its potential to reach families across society.

Science Capital Dimensions

  1. Scientific Literacy
  2. Science-related attitudes, values and dispositions
  3. Knowledge about the transferability of science
  4. Science media consumption
  5. Participation in out-of-school science learning contexts
  6. Family science skills, knowledge and qualifications
  7. Knowing people in science-related roles
  8. Talking about science in everyday life

For an idea of the different types of citizen science projects that exist, and for support in setting up your own project, the Natural History Museum’s guide to citizen science is a good place to start.

It highlights three main types of project:

  • Contributory – led by a researcher’s scientific enquiry and involving the public in data collection.
  • Collaborative – participants involved in more elements of the scientific process than just data collection, but scientists still sets the scientific enquiry.
  • Co – Created – designed and developed collaboratively between communities and professional researchers. Projects can also be public-led, where a community will develop a question, often in relation to some local issue, and scientists will then support them in answering the question and coming up with solutions.

As a general rule, the potential to increase family science capital increases as you go down the above list.  If you can throw in relatable and realistic role models as well, and find a project that has meaning for people in their own lives and social context, then even better.

Of course when determining which approach is most suitable, there are many factors to take into account, not least the resources and time required and the scientific research goals. However, the potential for a project to increase science capital has to be an important consideration. For those interested in how to do that, the following guide compiled by Informal Science is a good starting point.

Developing a citizen science project is only half the story of course, as they only have merit with sufficient participation. The second challenge is therefore to reach those families whose science capital we wish to increase.

Digital technologies now make it easier than ever to participate, but how do you stand out amongst the noise of the digital world? One approach gaining interest is through gamification and fun citizen science apps, but there must also be many other channels to explore, not least because not all families are the same.  It is an area ripe for innovation. For more information on citizen science in a digital age, the recent Open Science report by the Corsham Institute offers interesting reading.

Finally, it is important to not just consider an increase in science capital as merely a means to increase the number of children going on to science careers, as suggested in the King’s animation, but because it is also beneficial for everyone.

Even if not everyone is a scientist, or understands all the science in the news, it is important that individuals are at least equipped with the basics to be part of the important conversations that are increasingly needed in our rapidly changing world, and to also ensure that there is fair consideration of expert opinion. We should aspire towards increased civil participation in a knowledge-based society and I believe increased science capital is the bedrock for this.

I would like to therefore leave you with one final thought. If citizen science projects are developed with increasing science capital in mind, particularly amongst those currently with less, there is no reason that they can not only be beneficial for the scientist and individual citizens participating, but also beneficial for society as a whole.

David Urry

David Urry is a Science Communicator at the Natural History Museum, part of a team that delivers a diverse range of public engagement activities for museum visitors. This involves working closely with scientists at the museum to produce content for After Hours events, hosting discussions with scientists in front of live audiences and presenting the Museum’s NHM_Live online broadcasts.

He has written articles for print and online media, created and presented science communication videos, and devised and delivered numerous engagement activities for festivals around the country.

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