Q&A banner

Q&A: When Science is Social

Alumna Heidi Ballard discusses opportunities for education and research

Heidi Ballard, PhD ’04 Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), completed her doctorate—having previously earned degrees in biology, curriculum development, and teaching—with perfect timing. Passionate about sustainable development and collaborative research throughout her studies, she witnessed the advent of what we now call citizen science—and became a defining voice in the field. Breakthroughs sat down with Ballard to discuss the opportunities and outcomes of public participation in scientific research.

Heidi Ballard

Heidi Ballard notes that citizen science projects can help participants view science as a social, collective venture to which they can contribute.

Photo: Eva Guralnick

What was your path to where you are today, and when did you first become involved with community and citizen science?

During my years in higher education, I became fascinated with ethnobotany—the study of cultural uses of plants—as well as the emerging fields of conservation biology and sustainable development. Across all these fields, I was most drawn to studies that involved collaborative monitoring, where different groups of stakeholders—environmentalists, resource-dependent communities, scientists, and agencies—all came together to collect data.

When I set out to focus my dissertation on non-timber forest products in the Pacific Northwest, I found it odd that no one managing the forest was talking to the people who were actually doing the harvesting. Luckily, ESPM professor Louise Fortmann introduced me to the concept of participatory action research. She showed me that there’s a whole world of respectful and collaborative research partnerships between scientists and community groups. My world expanded further thanks to my advisor, ESPM professor Lynn Huntsinger, who knew how to collaborate with ranchers working “on the ground” as well as with federal agencies, and ESPM professor Nancy Lee Peluso, who introduced me to political ecology. I also learned a lot in a School of Public Health course on community-based participatory research taught by Meredith Minkler. I ended up using all these methods and conducting my dissertation research with Latino immigrant harvesters, to understand their methods for gathering shrubs from the forests—after originally being told that “they won’t talk to you.”

Participants in the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History California Naturalist course colling data on the coast

Participants in the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History California Naturalist course collect data on coastal ecosystems during their class citizen science project.

Photo: Courtesy of the PGMNH

After graduate school, I was able to combine my interest in involving the public in scientific research with my love for curriculum development and my background in teaching high school when I joined the faculty at the UC Davis School of Education in 2006. It was a perfect fit.

That same year, I went to the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America and heard a lot of buzz about this thing called citizen science. I joined the conversation, and it all evolved from there!

Public participation in scientific research has increased exponentially since then. How and why has this happened?

First, technology and the internet. The fact that people can enter data into an online platform instead of mailing in a paper list of birds they saw, for instance, has created so many possibilities for research. The prevalence of mobile phones that capture high-quality photos, which are time-stamped and geolocated, then uploaded through an app within seconds—all this has revolutionized what people can contribute from virtually wherever they are, about almost anything.

Beyond technology, there’s also a growing awareness of social justice issues and a feeling that we need to democratize science. Around the globe, people are realizing that everybody can engage in and improve the larger endeavor of science, which can then inform decision-making as we tackle global challenges like climate change and a rapid loss of biodiversity.

Tell us about your work as a professor of environmental science education.

I study what and how people learn through participation in community and citizen science projects. Lately, my research has looked at how projects in schools or after-school groups can be designed to not only help kids learn about environmental science but also give them a sense of agency around going out to make positive impacts in their communities and beyond. I also teach courses that show students from many disciplines—including ecologists, linguists, plant scientists, and even musicologists—how participatory research methods can help them do better and more equitable research.

What have you discovered about citizen science’s role as an educational tool?

One goal can be to help kids learn about science and to create a pipeline for tomorrow’s scientists, but there’s so much more than that. We can also hope that participants of all ages understand the natural world better and use the scientific process in their everyday decisions. We have found that there can be an identity shift—people begin to see themselves as part of the scientific community and to view science as a social, collective venture to which they can contribute. And then, ideally, they care more about advocating for and conserving the environments they’re studying.

Participation in citizen science can be as easy as using an app on your phone.

Smartphones and apps like iNaturalist and eBird have resulted in a dramatic increase in citizen science projects worldwide.

Photo: Natalea Schager

You’re the founder and faculty director of UC Davis’s Center for Community and Citizen Science, which is the first endeavor of its kind. What’s the center all about?

As hubs of both education and research, universities are the ideal place to enhance great research and make it more equitable. I wanted a center on campus to help institutionalize public participation in science research and provide a resource to help community and citizen science projects here at UC Davis—and across the world—be more strategic and effective for both research and educational outcomes. To that end, we offer workshops and training materials that help teachers learn how to adopt citizen science projects in their classrooms. We help scientists incorporate more participatory approaches in their work, and we show students that these methods are part of the scientific data-gathering tool kit. Finally, we connect community-based groups with researchers seeking partnerships for specific projects.

The term “citizen” has become problematic in some contexts, and some are calling for a change. What do you think?

I agree that it’s a problematic term. Many people feel alienated by that term, and rightfully so. Many people say when we use the term “citizen” in citizen science, it isn’t about whether someone’s a citizen of a country or not. It’s supposed to emphasize that doing science can be part of being a “citizen of the world.” A lot of people are starting to use the term “community science,” which is traditionally a much more community-based version of this work. But “citizen science” is still the most widely recognized term. So I try to strike the balance and use both.

And you included both “community” and “citizen” in the center’s name for that reason. What’s the difference?

First, we look at what people are actually doing: who’s participating, what they are getting out of it, and who’s in charge. We think about citizen science projects as being led by a scientist with a research question, and people participate because they are interested and want to help. Community science, on the other hand, starts with a community or group asking research questions—often around issues in which they are very invested—and usually involves more of an environmental justice or social justice component.

When I’m talking about the larger field in general, I call it “community and citizen science.” And to qualify as either of these, the data has to be used: whether it be by a scientist for basic research, a professional making a decision about natural resource management or conservation, or even a principal trying something new in her school, the data collected has to go somewhere.

Have you seen acceptance of these methods, as suitable for rigorous, peer-reviewed science, change over time?

There’s an ideal vision of community and citizen science, which is that when the project is done well, the participants are learning and benefiting while conducting research with the rigor and precision needed to result in good scientific data. A win-win! But some people still debate about whether these goals can coexist. And it’s true that some projects prioritize the science first at the expense of educational outcomes; the mobile app may not be user-friendly, for instance, or the results may not be returned back to participants. Others put education first, but may face more flaws in the data collected. What we do at the center is help people design projects that can do a better job for both the research and the education; when done well, each component enhances the other.

In fact, our research finds that when people know that a project is for “real research,” that’s when they learn the most. Participants remember that a scientist is depending on their data, so they dig in and make sure the methods are right. Community members hope to improve a local environmental policy, so they work hard to understand the research conclusions. The “realness” is what ensures the best scientific rigor and the most powerful science learning.