Why Do We Call It Participatory Science?

Why Do We Call It Participatory Science?

Here at SERC, we define participatory science as any research or science in which volunteers are engaged in the scientific process. Many research labs at SERC invite volunteers to engage in the data collection phase, but there are also some projects that do research or science to support community-driven questions. 

Our mission as the Participatory Science program is to support SERC research and community partner goals. We act as a bridge connecting volunteers and scientists, so we can meet the needs of volunteers, scientists, and communities. 

To answer questions that you might have, we have created a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). If you still have questions, please reach out to Rachael Mady, the Participatory Science Coordinator (MadyR@si.edu). 

  1. When did the switch happen?
  2. Why the name change?
  3. Why not call the program "community science"?
  4. Why use the term "participatory"?
  5. Can I still say "citizen science"?
  6. Where can I learn more about the discussion around "citizen science"?

When did the switch happen?

The Citizen Science Program at SERC changed its name on December 12th, 2023, and is now referred to as the Participatory Science Program. The Citizen Science Coordinator, Rachael Mady, now uses the job title, Participatory Science Coordinator. 

We had been internally discussing the name of our program for many years and decided to make the change 1) following the hiring of Rachael Mady to oversee the program, and 2) following the announcement of the Citizen Science Association to change their name to be the Association of Advancing Participatory Sciences (AAPS) on May 25, 2023.

Why the name change?

SERC launched its citizen science program in 2014, not long after the term started to be widely used in the United States and across the globe to refer to projects or programs that involved volunteers in research.

While the term “citizen science” is globally recognized, including by governments and funding agencies, there has been an ongoing debate over the last couple decades in the United States regarding its use. People working with volunteers or volunteers themselves have raised concerns about the word “citizen,” because many groups in the United States have been excluded from citizenship based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation (Cooper et al. 2021). Citizenship can have major implications for access and human rights. The word “citizen” can also imply that anyone without citizenship (i.e., those who are undocumented) are unwelcome (Ellwood et al. 2023). 

We don’t know if this term is a barrier to anyone engaging with us at SERC. However, changing our program’s name is one part of our continued efforts to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for volunteers to engage and work with SERC scientists. We engage with hundreds of people locally and globally, and we want to make sure that our language is as inclusive as possible. 

We recognize that when thinking about making our program inclusive, there are many aspects of our program beyond the name. Like many other programs that engage with volunteers in science, we know that the current demographic makeup of our program does not reflect the demographic makeup of the United States (Pandya 2012). We commit ourselves to reflect, strategize, and continue to work to make our programs inclusive to groups who have been historically excluded from or sometimes hurt by scientific research.

Why not call the program "community science"?

There is a rich history of practices and programs that have used “community science” to refer to grassroots efforts spearheaded by communities, which often use applied science. Community science is distinct because it is research linked with social and environmental justice, and is by definition community-led rather than led by research agencies. Swapping out “citizen” for “community” is co-opting the term (Cooper et al. 2021). It would be disingenuous for SERC to use “community science” when we are not engaging in that work. 

Community science is already a practice that is undervalued and underfunded (Cooper et al. 2021), and we do not want to take away any focus on true community science work. SERC’s position as a federal organization means that our role with community science will likely remain as consultants on work others are leading.

Why use the term "participatory"?

We want to use terminology that is in line with other organizations in the United States and beyond who are engaging with volunteers in scientific research and using the term “participatory science.” These include organizations in Latin America (Red Iberoamericana de Ciencia Participativa) and France (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sciences_participatives) as well as the EPA and UNESCO.

You may be wondering, “isn’t all science participatory?” In a sense yes—science is usually a team sport and participation is implied. However, we still need a term to differentiate science done by paid scientists who are doing it as a part of their jobs and science that involves more people, including volunteers, students, and other collaborators.   

Over the years, of the terms offered up as alternatives to “citizen” in “citizen science,” we feel that “participatory” communicates that we want science to be done by and include people of different walks of life and aligns us with other organizations.  

Can I still use the term "citizen science"?

Programmatically, SERC Public Engagement staff will not be using “citizen science” anymore and will be making the switch to using “participatory science.” We encourage people to join us in this change, but also recognize that the term “citizen science” has been useful for people to identify this program and others and understand that people will still use the term.  

We also recognize that “citizen science” is a term that is still useful in many contexts, including by governments and organizations worldwide. In the United States, provisions from the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015-2016 codified and defined citizen science into federal law such that we will still need to use the word when applying for funding for many of our programs. 

We will do what we feel is right for our program, and we encourage you to do what feels right for you, too. 

Where can I learn more about the discussion around "citizen science"?

Caren Cooper and colleagues wrote a great piece in Science, much of which we have drawn on for our explanations in this article.
We reference two other articles in this piece as well, and provide links to other pieces that influenced our thinking: 

If you need access to any of the articles, please reach out to Rachael Mady, the Participatory Science Coordinator (MadyR@si.edu).