IGP Stories

How can citizen social science be made truly sustainable?

Dr Alessandra Radicati


What ways of working are best for ensuring the longevity of relationships between citizen social scientists and the organizations that employ them? What infrastructures need to be in place to provide support for citizen social scientists, make sure their findings can impact policy, and eventually scale up these types of initiatives?

On May 18 2022, the PROCOL UK team convened an online roundtable as part of the Young Foundation’s Hive Minds Roundtable series to address these questions with a selection of partners. The event, “Infrastructure for Citizen Social Science: Reflections from East London” featured Caroline Rouse from Compost CIC, Noel Hatch from the London Borough of Newham, Naomi Mead from the Bromley-by-Bow Centre and Halima Hamid, a citizen social scientist based in Beckton and an alumni of the first cohort of the UCL Citizen Science Academy. The roundtable was chaired by Dr Alessandra Radicati and Dr James Shraiky of IGP’s PROCOL UK team.

Citizen social science sits at the heart of IGP’s research agenda, and is central to the PROCOL UK team’s longitudinal study, Barriers to Prosperity in east London 2021-2031. Citizen science has become increasingly popular over the past decade in the sciences and is well-established as a way of involving the public in large-scale scientific research, where people take part in volunteer monitoring and crowd-sourced projects. IGP's approach to citizen science is different. Local people are recruited and trained to work as social scientists in their own communities. IGP train them in research ethics, to design projects, collect and analyse data, interpret the results and share information. The citizen social scientists come from different professional and socio-economic backgrounds - having one fundamental requirement in common: being a local resident of the area.

One of the objectives of the roundtable was to delve more deeply into the specific opportunities and challenges presented by citizen social science. This is rooted in a recognition that the social and political questions citizen social scientists are investigating have an impact on the lives of the researchers themselves.

The roundtable opened with remarks from Zoe Dibb, The Young Foundation’s Head of Research. Chair of the session Dr Alessandra Radicati started the discussion by asking each panellist to describe in a few sentences what “sustainable citizen social science” meant to them. This led to a range of responses from our London Prosperity Board partners, including the need for citizen science to be place-based and embedded in existing infrastructure. The importance of looking to the future, the sustainability of different business models and citizen social science as opportunity for upskilling through employment, not volunteering was emphasised.

The session included an important conversation on career and professional development opportunities for citizen social scientists. One vision may include gradually handing over ownership of the research process to the citizen social scientists. In this type of scenario, increasing training on topics such as data management and analysis would be key. The panel considered what the ideal outcome of training would be – is the eventual goal for citizen social scientists to be freelancers and independent researchers? Is there any possibility of “citizen social scientist” being a recognized, salaried job within a local authority? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each of these visions of future employment?

Over the course of the discussion, one particularly memorable insight came from Halima, who shifted our attention back to the physical aspects of infrastructure for citizen social science. Halima noted that in the future, citizen social scientists might benefit from “CSS hubs” – physical locations where they could carry out interviews and speak with participants. These hubs might provide a safe space for research participants who may otherwise feel too self-conscious to share personal details, and could provide a convenient base for the citizen social scientists working in their communities. The existence of these structures would also sign-post their presence in given neighbourhoods and make them more recognisable and visible.

The event closed with a lively question and answer session from the audience. Audience members raised the potential of having citizen social scientists alumni speak to young people in their communities, and inquired about the best training processes, as well as questions about data quality. The questions and discussions suggested the importance of future conversations to continue thinking through the different meanings of “infrastructure” and “sustainability” for citizen social science.

A session of the recording is available on the Young Foundation’s Peer Research Network platform; users can sign up here.

Follow Us