Congregational Crowdsourcing

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

An exciting diversity exists in the nature and timeline of each citizen science program; from asteroid mapping to bird watching, there seems to be a project for everyone.  But those two examples also serve to expose a trend; to date the natural sciences have basked in the limelight of citizen science, while social sciences have been relegated to the shadows.

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Grace United Methodist Church, home to Citizen Science Belleville (photo by: Corey Coyle)

This point was stressed recently by an audience member at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) panel, “Citizen Science: Empowering a Robust National Effort.”  What role do the social sciences play in citizen science projects?  The answer, like the question itself, is two-fold.  The first role of social science, as it relates to citizen science, is to study the field itself, asking questions like, what motivates participants to join projects? Why do scientists use this method? And, what are the learning outcomes from participation?  On this front, members of the panel were quick to enumerate and laud the contributions of social science to projects currently underway.  In its second role however, as a subject of study, social science seems to falter.  It’s something that the career scientists and advocates of citizen science at the ACS event acknowledged: the scarcity of citizen science projects tackling social science problems.  For instance, on databases like scistarter.com and citizenscience.gov, it can be difficult to find anyone conducting studies in psychology. But, at a church in southern Wisconsin, one group is doing just that.

On the first and third Mondays of each month, a devout faction of Belleville, Wisconsin’s 2,385 residents meets at the Grace United Methodist Church.  It’s then and there that the pews are filled with ears eager for discussion, not a sermon.  The subject of discussion, as unlikely as the locale, is citizen science.  And, while the group participates in a variety of science projects from scistarter.com, most recently in the FDA’s Zika-related mosquito mapping campaign,the majority of its time is spent on social science, especially the replication of social psychology studies.  On the Open Science Framework (OSF) one can read through the entirety of their work, from proposals, to data sets and summaries, along with what amounts to a mission statement, “to conduct replication studies advancing health, relationships, and/or well-being.”

Some readers may doubt whether a church group from Smalltown USA can make meaningful contributions to citizen science.  These doubts are ill-founded.  At the pulpit is Chris Santos-Lang, founder of grinfree.com, who, along with a small team, is in the process of conducting their first replication study.  This work wouldn’t be possible without volunteer subjects from Belleville, and a framework that mirrors established, larger-scale citizen science projects: citizen input with expert instruction and supervision.

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Citizen scientist, Alfred Braceros, teaches volunteers how to monitor Belleville’s mosquito population (photo credit: Wolfgang Hoffman)

It’s also easy to imagine the imposition of an agenda; after all, many faith-based organizations have clear-cut stances on social issues – the same kind of issues that can be found under the microscope at Citizen Science Belleville.  In response to this potential concern, it is important to note that all faiths and creeds are welcome to these meetings, which, aside from their location, comprise an exclusively secular affair.  Furthermore, none of the studies published on their OSF page thus far have dealt with religion expressly. On the contrary, while some might opine that organized religion could hamper such a citizen science outfit, it may in fact be the only reason for its existence in the first place. Not only does the Grace United Methodist church provide a meeting space for amateur scientists, it also allows them to tap into one of the most established types of social networks in the world: the congregation.

For citizen science to work, you need volunteers.  But drumming up participation is easier said than done.  In fact, at the aforementioned ACS panel, this very issue was listed as one of the current limitations to citizen science.  Encouraging people to spend time or effort on projects, often with scopes vast enough to be disorienting, is challenging.  Whether or not a given individual participates in a citizen science project seems to depend on its relevancy to their daily life.  It should come as no surprise then, that some of the most successful undertakings thus far have been conducted within the field of healthcare, or in conjunction with hobbies people already enjoy, like birding.

A recent essay published in Theory and Practice, a journal run by the Citizen Science Association, highlighted the under-representation of certain socioeconomic and racial groups within the citizen science movement.  These discrepancies, the gaps between the general population and the people actively taking part in citizen science, affect both how projects are conducted and, more importantly, what questions are asked in the first place. Ideally then, every voice would be heard.  But in a myopic world, to elicit the sense of inter-connectivity that citizen science seeks to foster, people need commonalities to draw upon, ones that transcend social, economic, and racial barriers.  These unities abound in classrooms, on the playing field, and in churches as well. That’s why organizations like Citizen Science Belleville stand to gain from leveraging pre-existing social networks.  Simply put, congregations, and communities like them, might prove fertile soil for sowing the seeds of citizen science.

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