Reflections on ECSA 2020 conference

In early February 2019, Lucy Robinson, the then vice-chair of the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) asked me to join the conference organising committee on behalf of the ECSA board. The journey finished last Friday afternoon, with the end of the side events of the conference – as always, a long journey, made longer due to the impact of Covid-19. The conference was planned for the end of May, for 3 days, in Trieste. As the programme was getting into its final stages at the end of February (especially with the news of Covid-19 impact in northern Italy) it became clear that a face to face conference in May will not happen. With a special and outstanding effort of the partner organisation in Trieste – SISSA Medialab – an online platform for the conference was identified, and instead of running the conference over 2 days, it became a week-long online event, with two parallel sessions at most.

For me, this conference is closing a decade of citizen science conferences – which is something worth reflecting on, as it allows noticing what has changed over this time. Leaving aside the oddity of participating in a conference from your kitchen (in the background of this screenshot)

The Citizen Cyberscience Summit in September 2010 was the first dedicated citizen science conference that I attended. You can find the live blogging from the conference here and my post about it here. This conference was an opportunity for people from very different fields – from humanities to physics – to start finding out that there are commonalities between these activities in terms of the involvement of people outside research institutions that are coming together. Next came the second citizen cyberscience summit in early 2012 and the Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) conference later on in the same year. Both where still in the form of “oh, look, another person is doing things that are similar to mine, let’s share ideas”. The conferences were ad-hoc, with a lot of ideas emerging about creating a more lasting community connection – in particular in the PPSR conference, with the wish to create the citizen science association (CSA) and to establish the Citizen Science: Theory and Practice journal. by the time of the third citizen cyberscience summit in 2014, there was starting to be a sense of a community: people who are coming to regular meetings to share ideas and to inform each other about the development of their practice, as well as still an influx of new people. The format that these summits set – of having a public day as well as more traditional conference formats, and having alternative formats of sessions and workshops, is now an integral part of the ECSA conferences. By 2014, both in the US and in Europe, the CSA and ECSA started to form, with the first official meeting of ECSA in this year, and a meeting in Barcelona in 2015.

ECSA 2016 conference

2015 also marked the first CSA conference with ECSA first conference in 2016, so within five years, the informal networks consolidated into scientific network organisations, with the first start of regular conference. This became the pattern for the next conference (so the CSA had conferences in 2017 and 2019, and ECSA in 2018). The end of this decade was seeing the conference becoming a regular feature (and I’m missing the Australian Citizen Science Association conferences that also emerged somewhere at the mid-point of this decade, as well as localised conferences in different places).

I was lucky to have an inside view of the conferences that I listed above, as I was part of the conference committees and was involved in designing and delivering them in different ways. While I know that my impressions are biased, there are several things that stood out for me in ECSA 2020:

  1. The citizen science community is strong enough to sustain an online networking event. There are enough “familiar faces” that even in the medium of textual communication in the conference presentation chat channel, people know each other and can discuss things.
  2. There is an element of professionalisation that come with stable networking organisations: while in the citizen cyberscience summits, I and my students spend many volunteering hours and had to deal with minor problems throughout the conference, there is now stability that allow a dedicated person (Tim Woods in the case of ECSA) to continue and work on the conference – this makes a big difference in the ability to create and run a conference and was invaluable in the transition from face to face to online.
  3. There is a continues expansion of who is included and who join the conversation: the environmental justice community science people join the CSA conference in 2018 and made a wonderful impact, while in ECSA 2020 we’ve seen more involvement from social science and humanities, while health is becoming a very active area (with a potential working group in ECSA)
  4. There are now many early career researchers (PhD students and postdocs) who are presenting in the conference and developing their practice. There are also plenty of academics who are nurturing these researchers in the field of citizen science. I am a bit concern that for many of them, and especially the more shy ones, the online conference didn’t provide the networking opportunities that face to face conferences support.
  5. There is also a growing notion of main literature – it was lovely to see someone in the chat being excited about the attendance of Jennifer Shirk and commenting about how her work helped them in their research! (it helped me too)
  6. In the case of ECSA, the strong financial support from the European Commission Horizon 2020 programme, and especially the Science with and for Society stream, was clear: lots of projects and linking that is coming out of projects. There is also evidence of local projects in different countries – this awareness and funding of citizen science allow the growth of the field and it made a huge difference – especially in the past 3-4 years.
  7. There will always be a discussion about the term “citizen science” and realisation that, despite its limitations, there isn’t a magic term that will solve the problems of citizen science as a field. For those who are not aware, this discussion is appearing as early as the discussion papers in 2008 that led to the creation of PPSR as a term. There are lots of issue with “citizen science” as a term, and there are always new people, so that is expected and welcomed.
  8. There are fewer discussions about “how can non-professional participants produce good quality data”. This is somewhat similar to the trajectory that OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia went through, and it is not dominating the conference so much – but it is still an issue for wider acceptance of citizen science.
  9. There is a lively interest in policy impact, and signs of such impact and local, national, and international level – the policy session of ECSA 2020 attracted quite a sizeable audience and a lively discussion in the chat.
  10. The issue of the opening up of the conference to the participants in citizen science projects is also a persistent one, which is something that is explored in different ways but still needs more work. How to make a “discussion about us” to a bit more “discussion with us” is something that can be improved. When I’m searching for reviewers of paper for the Citizen Science: Theory and Practice journal, I am starting to reach out to participants, and ask them to review a paper about similar project to the one that they are involved in. Maybe we should find a way for interested participants to join the conference committee and help to influence the conferences this way. [Notice that I don’t call them citizen scientists, as a way to solve the terminology issue – they are participating in a “citizen science” project and might identify themselves with the project and not with the field]
  11. Diversity and equity are something that we need to continue and work on in this conferences – we’re doing well on research fields and fairly well on gender, there is much more to do. For ECSA, I feel that we’re missing voices from the Russian and Arabic countries, from European countries with less strong science focus, and from the different minorities – religion, ethnicity, and skin colour – both in the conference participants and in plenary sessions.

So these are my 11 reflections, and I’ll be interested to learn about other people reflections and impressions from the conference – in ECSA (of which I’m now co-vice chair), we’re trying to learn from the conference and start thinking about the next one.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on ECSA 2020 conference

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