For the first time, citizens could have a say in deciding how governments spend on scientific research.

The area has long been out of reach of public participation, but governments are now using citizen science, a crowdsourcing initiative to gather the public’s ideas on how and what research should be conducted.

GovInsider has set out four things the public sector should know about the approach.

1. What is citizen science?

Citizen science is a crowdsourcing technique, where the public participates voluntarily to contribute data to scientific research such as education, humanities, spatial information, biodiversity statistics or environmental changes.

They can participate in one step, or the whole process, from collecting data, conducting experiments, interpreting results, to problem-solving. Results are shared on a public portal, where communities gather and exchange experience and insights.

These insights are then used to help researchers and policy makers formulate conservation strategies, map out disaster-stricken areas, and improve service delivery.

2. Why is it important?

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The technique gives citizens a say in research that is driving the next generation of services. They can voice out their values and concerns on disruptive tech like genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence. They can guide discussions from the early stages – deciding on the research topic, how it is conducted and how results should be used.

It can also help governments identify pressing issues. For example, residents in Michigan gathered data on lead contamination in waters, and advocated for a thorough examination to convince officials of the problem. The state’s Department of Environmental has previously ignored warning signs and relied on flawed data.

Further, users can learn new skills, gain awareness and improve their scientific literacy. The United States government houses all its citizen science initiative under one platform. It catalogues ongoing projects, teaches the public with a step-by-step guide and connects communities so they can share and discuss their findings. This puts residents in a hands-on learning environment; and students who participate may benefit from such an approach, compared to classroom learning.

3. How could it affect government?

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By allowing residents to have a say in research, governments can ensure that assigned funds have a deeper impact. It will discipline efforts to solving real-world problems, rather than ivory tower topics. “American adults fund 50% of the basic science [through tax dollars], and we entrust people with issues that impact our lives, but we’re cut out of the conversation”, says Darlene Cavalier, founder of Scistarter, a citizen science effort, Slate writes.

The United States notwithstanding, governments across the world dedicate a large amount of money on research. In Asia this year, Singapore announced a US$13 billion innovation budget for the next five years; South Korea has pledged US$840 million on AI research; while Indonesia allocated US$40 million for a broad, multi-year scientific research.

4. What is happening in the region on this?

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In Japan, residents are using the approach to report on the Fukushima radiation. Safecast – a citizen science network has gathered 41 million readings from 350 participants. “We’re working with communities to install these sensors in people’s neighborhoods”, Pieter Franken, Safecast’s founder, told National Geographic.

Singapore’s National Parks agency leads the nation’s citizen science programmes on biodiversity initiatives. It has an agenda for students to plant suitable greens on school grounds after conducting biodiversity checks on their environmental sustainability.

Elsewhere, a non-profit organisation in Beijing has turned to its residents to track foul rivers in the city. By 2030, the local government aims to clean up the entire river, the New Security Beat reports. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) has since integrated the data collected into a mobile app, with hopes that the platform can reach out to more citizens.

Citizens remain at the centre of this approach. As governments rely on citizens for insights, they can ground their service delivery to better serve them.

Streets by Jorge Díaz, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Robot by lupita.ala, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0