Mass experiments and a new national platform - Citizen Science in Sweden
From its first beginnings in the 18th century to a biodiversity database and a national platform: Citizen science has continuously developed and gained relevance in Sweden. We have talked to Martin Bergman from Vetenskap & Allmänhet (Science & Public) about their annual citizen science projects, lessons learned from the launch of the Swedish web portal and untapped potential for citizen science in Sweden.
Since 2009, Vetenskap & Allmänhet (VA) has conducted an annual citizen science project, called “The mass experiments”, together with different researchers as part of the Europe-wide event European Researchers’ Night (in Sweden: ForskarFredag). What is the idea behind these mass experiments?
Bergman: At Vetenskap & Allmänhet, we work in many different ways to create bridges and get a dialogue going between science and society, to promote public engagement in science. We started the mass experiments because we consider citizen science a good way to practice public engagement, to create this dialogue and interaction between researchers and the general public. As an organisation, we like to try out new formats to do science communication and public engagement and to set an example of how it can be done.
What research topics have the mass experiments dealt with in the past?
Bergman: Each year, we create a new mass experiment, collaborating with a new researcher and focusing on a new research question - not only to have some variation but also to show how broad research and citizen science can be. This year, the mass experiment is focusing on plastic pollution in Swedish nature. Last year, it dealt with accessibility in Swedish houses and the year before that with food waste. We have also done mass experiments on light pollution, on air quality and noise levels in classrooms and on the autumnal shift in leave colours. And we had a project that combined biodiversity and AI technology: For the ladybug experiment, we asked participants to take photos of ladybugs and upload them through an app. The data was used to build an AI that can identify different species of ladybugs and help in biodiversity monitoring. We try to develop the concept of the mass experiments from year to year by finding new ways of communicating, involving other disciplines and targeting new groups that are not commonly involved in citizen science projects.
Do you know how many people take part in the mass experiments?
Bergman: We have had quite some variation in participation over the years. With some topics, for example ones that are very up-to-date or much debated in the media, it is easier to get people engaged than with others. Besides, participation also depends on which group we target. In the beginning, we only targeted school classes via their teachers, but during the last three or four years we have also started to target a broader audience. For last year’s housing accessibility project for example, we invited senior citizens to take part. One of our most popular mass experiments was the ladybug experiment: 5000 images of ladybugs were sent in. But of course, some classes or groups sent in several images, so we can only estimate the number of participants. To be honest, it’s a challenge to know exactly how many people are involved in our mass experiments.
This year, the mass experiment is about plastic pollution. How do citizens participate?
Bergman: The citizens - school children, scout groups, families, individuals - participate by collecting data on plastic pollution. The set-up is quite easy: Collecting trash along a stretch that is 100 meters long and, depending on the choice of the participants, between two and 50 meters wide. After that, the participants pick out the plastic waste and sort it into different categories, count the number of plastic waste items in each category and report the results in a web portal. They also have to choose a specific type of environment to do the experiment in, for instance a park, a forest or a beach. We have had a data collection period this spring, now another one this autumn and then we will have two again next year. It is the first time that we are doing one experiment over two years, which I think is very nice because, based on the experiences from this year, we can make improvements next year.
For the plastic experiment, you work together with the researcher Bethanie Carney Almroth from Göteborg University. What does she want to find out through this experiment?
Bergman: The overall aim is to gain more knowledge about how plastic waste ends up in nature. That is why we ask participants to do the experiment in different types of environments and to indicate what types of plastic objects they find. From the data collected, Bethanie Carney Almroth hopes to draw conclusions on how the waste differs between different types of environments and where the waste is coming from.
VA has now been involved with citizen science for more than ten years through the mass experiments. How has the tradition of doing citizen science evolved in Sweden?
Bergman: The tradition can be traced back a long time. That is what I find very interesting about citizen science: The term is relatively new, but the practice actually is not. In Sweden, the history of citizen science can be traced back to the botanist Carl von Linné, who in the 18th century created a network for reporting the budding of the first tree leaves in springtime. During the past few decades, the establishment of the biodiversity database ArtDatabanken at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) has been important for the development of citizen science in Sweden. Through the associated platform Artportalen, citizens can register their observations of animals and plants and thereby contribute to the monitoring of biodiversity. Over the last years, a few universities have been actively working with citizen science and providing resources to their researchers. But compared to other, bigger countries, I would say that the developments in Sweden have been rather slow and that we still have a long way to go.
Bergman: At first we asked the researchers whether they had heard about citizen science. 37 percent stated that they had heard of the concept, while a majority of 56 percent stated that they had not. Then we asked those that had heard about it about their attitudes towards citizen science: 20 percent said they had a very positive attitude, 42 percent a fairly positive attitude and only 8 percent a fairly or very negative attitude towards citizen science. We also published an article in which we combined our data with findings from a similar survey among SLU researchers. Overall, researchers’ attitudes towards citizen science are quite positive in Sweden.
In December 2021, VA launched the national citizen science portal medborgarforskning.se together with Göteborg University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Umeå University. What are the goals of this platform?
Bergman: The goal is to create a network and a meeting point for citizen science in Sweden, both for researchers who are conducting citizen science projects and for citizens who want to find interesting projects and get active. We want to establish forums and communication channels for everyone involved with citizen science and thereby create a citizen science community in Sweden. The launch conference we held in December was a great start to get the community together and we would like to hold such conferences more regularly. To get people together to talk, I think that is really important for the development of citizen science in Sweden.
Now that it has been online for 10 months, what are your first experiences with the platform?
Bergman: My first experience is that while launching the platform is a good start, it needs active work to create this living community and have people engage and use the resources we provide on the platform. We have not really gotten there yet.
What would you need to be able to put more active work into the platform?
Bergman: It's all about resources. The funding of the project ended with the launch of the platform. We need resources for someone to work actively with the platform, not only the technical parts, but also to create this community, plan activities and events around the platform. So we need to get together with our project partners and see how we can get more funding.
Do you see untapped potential for promoting citizen science in Sweden? Is there a need for political action?
Bergman: Definitely. I mean, we see some changes at the policy level. For instance, the recent forskningsproposition in which the Swedish government presents its research policy and budget for the years 2021 to 2024 mentions ‘citizen science’ as a way of engaging the general public in research. This was the first time the term citizen science or ‘medborgarfoskning’ in Swedish was mentioned in the proposal and I think that is very important. The government has furthermore mandated the National Library of Sweden to develop national guidelines for open science and I am expecting that those guidelines will include citizen science as one of the components of open science. However, in contrast to other countries, we still do not have any funding calls specifically for citizen science projects. I hope such calls will be introduced, but of course the long-term aim must be for citizen science to be viewed as a normal tool for doing research, so that it no longer requires any specific funding.