Citizen science as activism

How we can keep those doing scientific research accountable

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing science as purely academic and unrelated to activism. The science we learn at University is often highly theoretical and dominated by knowledgeable ‘experts’. Somehow it is seen as impartial, and beyond application to the real world it stems from. But, what of the people who’s lives the science actually affects? Where does the citizen go to get information?  And, if scientific research and methodologies are so inaccessible to ordinary people, how can we keep those doing the research accountable?

‘Citizen science’ is science conducted by ‘non-scientists’, aka ‘citizens’. It exists on a spectrum from collecting ‘big data’ for an expert-led research project, to a community of non-scientists defining and executing their own projects. By itself, citizen science is not an inherently radical practice. But, when highlighting and valuing the power of local experiences and fortifying these with ‘numbers’, citizen science can play a role in environmental justice. When science is done with community and led by community, this is a form of activism.

Let’s look at Maules Creek, bordered by the Leard State Forest in rural North-West NSW, where farmers are concerned with elevated coal dust and noise from the open cut coalmines within a few kilometres of their crops and homes. Whitehaven (the mining company) self-monitors dust and noise pollution which (supposedly) rarely exceeds national pollution standards. However, to locals, the heavy haze that hangs over the mine each morning, and the thick layer of dust that they scrub off their letterboxes tells a different story.

When it’s the mining company that is in control of information on pollution, locals don’t have access to the science to back up their observations. This means they have no recourse to challenge the industries that are undermining their community, with no way to appeal to the experts.

So ‘citizens’ take research into their own hands.

Since 2016, students have joined these local farmers through the Leard Forest Research Node to create and maintain a community air quality-monitoring network. Using basic glassware familiar to anyone who’s made cider at home, these ‘citizen scientists’ measured the quantity of dust at different distances from the Maules Creek mine each month. Now, when the mining company, Whitehaven, attempts to assure residents that air quality levels on the frontline of open cut coal mines are “equivalent to that of Randwick in Sydney”, long term data for community, collected by community, is there to challenge these claims. With a sustained and collaborative effort to monitor dust levels in the area, we now have data with which we can communicate the issues locals feel in a language that even the mining companies cannot argue with.

Meanwhile, other students of The University of Sydney have done some ‘data mining’ of their own. Third year Mathematics student, Margot used her passion for Excel spreadsheets to find that over 25% of the air pollution data reported by Whitehaven coal in 2016 was ‘invalid’ or ‘negative’. To put that in context, try to imagine what a negative number of dust particles in the air might look like. Having trouble? We did too. Probably because there is no such thing as negative dust. That’s to say that most of the data they reported was actually impossible. But without a passionate student to dive into the mess of inaccessible spreadsheets, no one would ever know!

Now that’s some worthy procrastination from your Maths assignment. Or… is it a worthy topic for your Maths assignment?

Furthermore, many of us will be considering Honours, Masters and PhD topics in the future. Why not spend those years critically engaging with research that is both relevant and actually useful to real life communities?

Being at university should be equally about developing critical thinking skills as it is about getting that degree. To engage with communities and know when to call out the ‘experts’ in industry and government is to be critically engaged citizens.

Science can be used to silence. And it can be used to empower.

Many students are in a unique position with the freedom to choose our research projects. Why not choose to work with communities who have research questions and needs of their own? Done well, this kind of citizen science is activism.

This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.