Academic change is necessary to fully reap the benefits of citizen science

‘Does the academic system actually allow young researchers to do co-production research?’ That was the central question PhD Boram Kimhur posed during a Citizen Science lunch at TU Delft. As an expert in the field of citizen science, she observes several barriers conducting participatory research. Relying on her experience as both a practitioner in the field and academic, Kimhur captivated the audience with ‘lessons no one talks about’. The bottom line: in order to fully reap the benefits of citizen science as society, academic change is necessary.

‘I encountered many researchers who are implementing participatory or co-production research or who are eager to explore it. The challenges they face transcend methods, tools or models. These challenges have to do with systemic issues in universities and academia,’ states Boram Kimhur. Her experiences stem from working as an activist architect, together with communities to develop their housing solutions together and advocating their plans to the government, as well as her PhD research on housing justice and equality. ‘Academia should be able to create a system that enables co-production research from the very beginning.’

Co-production research inherently aims for social change. Kimhur: ‘It addresses the questions seeking for necessary knowledge and measures for the change.’ One of its key values is that it can be a powerful tool to empower citizens. ‘Through this research, citizens’ local knowledge and expertise are recognised. And, the participating citizens get more informed during the research process, become more aware of societal issues, get connected to various groups to collaborate, and build the capacity to transform their concerns into concrete actions. In the longer term, this kind of research can contribute to enhancing democracy, and making our society more inclusive.’ Yet to reach this full potential, there are still some hurdles to overcome.

Co-production research starts with co-design

Common questions that Kimhur encounters among scholars in this type of research are: how can we build trust, how can we get real information from the communities, how can we tell what benefits communities get from this research, how can we bring back the knowledge to the community? To Kimhur, these questions point toward an error in approach: ‘If the problems and projects are defined with the community from the beginning, you don't run into these.’ The current modus operandi is often the standard academic route, starting with literature review and identifying a knowledge gap, then formulating a problem statement and picking a method. ‘This results in let’s say a PhD defining a problem and bringing it to the community. Citizens are forced to engage in research defined by a researcher. How can you expect ownership?’

If there is no shared process and no ownership, there is no true co-production research

― Boram Kimhur

‘If there is no shared process and no ownership, there is no true co-production research,’ says Kimhur. ‘Producing new knowledge by analysing the collected opinions of communities or citizens is not co-production. This type of research is more like a consultation, rather than co-producing knowledge and solutions.’ A co-production research should start with co-design. ‘Ideally with informal meetings together to design a research project, to clarify responsibilities, expectations, benefits…’ Kimhur is well aware this costs time and resources. ‘It is debatable if protocols in academia support this co-design process.’

Flexibility as a requirement

Another requirement to conduct the whole research cycle with the community is flexibility. Again, the question is if universities allow for such flexibility. Kimhur: ‘As researchers we have a limited research timeline which wrestles with adjusting the research output and goals. And a PhD also takes his or her supervisor into account, when thinking about changing the research output design or adapting the study based on observations in the field.’ Supervisors often worry about PhD being able to graduate on time. ‘Those concerns are justified, but a lack of flexibility as a researcher means imposing something on the people you intend to collaborate with.’ 

Institutional support needed

What also should be taken into account, is institutional capacity. Kimhur: ‘In practice it is difficult to enter the field as an individual, to build a relationship and manage the whole process. In my experience the ideal research model builds upon a relation on an institutional level between a community based organization and a research group.’ Organizations already in a community have valuable knowledge about the issues at hand. ‘Are universities spending enough effort to establish solidarity with societal organizations, so that researchers can join those initiatives?’

Citizen science is an emerging topic, and Kimhur expects more scholars will want to apply this kind of research in the near future. ‘This also requires some institutional infrastructure to support the co-design process, whether practical devices or a fund for such a process.’ And further training of supervisors and academic staff: ‘We will need knowledge and experience to guide young researchers. For instance on awareness of ethical sensitivity.’ Kimhur knows from experience how important this is: ‘The way scholars walk around in a community can make locals feel like animals in the zoo, rather than partners. Proper guidance is no luxury, but a responsibility.’ Kimhur stresses that it matters a lot how you approach people and how you phrase things. ‘Professional trainings on the social skills and mindset necessary for co-production research are needed.’

Kimhur also points out the possible tension between the communities’ standard and the academic standard, and the need to discuss these conflicting interests. ‘For instance being engaged as a researcher as opposed to objectivity, or needing to speak to a certain number of people in the light of scientific rigour, while it’s in the community’s interest to move on.’ 

Fairness and realism

In order to conduct co-production research deliberate, academics have to ask themselves a question of conscience, argues Kimhur: ‘Are we brave enough to be realistic?’ That fairness is needed - among other things - to assess what is an achievable level within the time frame of an individual project; to be clear about to what extent co-design is possible; and also towards the supervisors’ capacity. ‘Realism is also needed to accept and value the results of this kind of research. Sometimes the process is the most valuable part.’

‘To tap into the opportunities and added value of citizen science, universities and academia must be willing to broaden their horizons.’ As a prelude, together with fellow researchers Kimhur has initiated the course 'The Ethics of Co-production Research' for PhDs at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. The course was designed with the idea that PhDs need a platform to discuss and share difficulties and concerns, learn from each other, instead of merely learning from lecturers. Kimhur: ‘In the field I met many fine researchers with good intentions, but that’s not enough.’