Science and citizen participation. Involving citizens in scientific projects.

posted 9 Nov 2015, 22:24 by Franco Bagnoli   [ updated 9 Nov 2015, 22:24 ]
The democracy is based on the idea that strategic options should be discussed collectively and that the resulting decisions taken should have broad support. The traditional method, which is to elect representatives and let them take the decision, has shown to have some drawbacks and limits. Deputies are chosen for reasons that have little to do with their skills, and the decision-making process is often influenced by economic and political reasons that do not correspond to the will of the people. This is why often the instruments of direct democracy, such as referenda, are invoked, or methods of pressure (opinion campaigns) are undertaken. These tools are and could be greatly enhanced by Internet.

But it is rarely easy to take a decision on technical questions. Energy choices (nuclear or not?), food decisions (GMO), medical topics (assisted reproduction, genetic screening), social issues (migration) are just a few examples of issues that inflame or have inflamed the public debate. Unfortunately these issues are often treated following more an emotional rather than a scientific approach by the various mass media. Just think of the anti-GMO campaign that rarely touches technical topics.

The risk that we deal with in these cases is that of letting decisions be taken with criteria that are far from science, or delegated to "technicians" (the famous "experts"), or, even worse, taken according to emotional pressure.

Surely, we need an informed, i.e. a knowledge-based approach  in order to form a correct opinion. But often this transfer of knowledge takes place with the philosophy of the "empty vessel". Citizens are seen as people with a handicap (the lack of knowledge) that must be overcome, and the instrument to do this is similar to the transfer of liquids: television, radio, newspapers, and conferences. All channels that are essentially one-way and  "pour" knowledge into citizens.

The Science Cafés

The Science Cafés were in part born to address this need. A Science Café is a kind of anti-conference: there are experts and the public, but we try to ensure that the debate is driven by the public, rather than by experts. For this purpose, we try to organize the event in a place where the citizens, rather than experts, feel "at home". So, when possible, the event is not organized in a conference room but rather a pub, a coffee or even a market. Even the physical layout of the spectators must encourage participation, so one have to bring experts and the public on the same level, encourage discussion by seating people at cocktail tables, and maybe offer them some drinks. This formula is obviously not unique: there are so many similar experiments as "science in the market" or "a pint of science."

In particular, our experience as a Science Café Florence-Prato( 10 years of activity, more than 120 events) allowed us to explore various "modalities" of participatory communication. For example, we found that depending on the theme one has to use different "scenarios". When citizens already know a topic, one can immediately start with the debate, in the  "pure" spirit of Science Cafés, and we usually use two experts with different profiles to cover most aspects of the theme. But when instead the theme, still known, requires a technical introduction, it is preferable to have a single speaker, who is granted more time, a mixture of a conference and a Science Café. Obviously, also in this case, ample time is left for debates.

We also worked (in collaboration with the CDSC - Interdepartmental Centre for the Study of Complex Dynamics of the University of Florence,, with our sister association FormaScienza Rome,, with Milan Science Café,, and with the University of Bari), to create a network of Italian Science Cafés:

A similar experience at European level was part of a European project, SciCafe(, within which we also experimented with Internet support to the Science Café.

The idea is that the organization a Science Café is a daunting task, and even when the audience responds enthusiastically, we only touch at most one hundred people. In addition, rural areas, or remote villages have difficulty in participating in this kind of meeting, and also in organizing them on site because for them it is much more difficult to have the experts. Therefore, for many years, we are video-recording events, publishing them on YouTube, and in recent years we streamed the debates, with the opportunity for the public to directly participate in the debate. This tool has been perfected within another European project, SciCafe2.0 (

Finally, in five years we conducted a radio transmission (RadioMoka) on a local radio station of Florence (Novaradio, Despite the radio is a rather old and one-way media, it still remains the least invasive one and the one most apt to integration with the Internet.

Citizen Science

One can go further. Citizens may be called to directly participate in the scientific activities and also in some way to drive them. The easiest way is to let them act as evaluators. Many projects that receive public support (both national and European) often use some of the funds for the "dissemination" of their results, but this happens again one-way: informative articles, gadgets, advertising material. It would be much more productive if they spend some of their time and energy to meet the public, explain what they are doing and receive opinions, suggestions and participation. This obviously needs a network connection between projects and public, a task that could be carried out also by the Science Cafés, in particular by using the networks linking the different realities.

More and more often we talk about smart-cities and collective awareness. These are usually tools of investigation or actions that have a social impact often imply social connection mediated by Internet. But even in this case the citizens are often viewed as "targets," or as a "substrate", and rarely as proponents. The move from "smart cities" to "smart citizens", i.e., involving citizens in data acquisition and in the processing of collective intelligence, could trigger a real epocal change.

However, this implies that the proponents have to be prepared to adjust their action depending on the stimuli received.

Here too, the Science Cafés could play a role as a link between the projects and the population. To do this, citizens should be involved from the earliest stages of design, so that the projects will acquire a truly participatory character. But even the simple invitation to people to evaluate the project - when it can still be modified and adapted, has an important participatory significance.

In some cases, projects provide a direct involvement of the population, for example for measurements using low-cost sensors, or by providing personal information may help to solve collective problems, such as traffic problems, emergency management, to establish the virtuous competitions on energy saving and waste management, and so on. The weak point of these projects is typically that of the recruitment of citizens, in part because it is unlikely that these projects have access to efficient communication channels, and also because such projects are often felt "distant", their purpose is not understood, or not adapted to the collective needs. Again, participatory tool like Science Cafés could be extremely useful.

Science Shops

Finally, projects and public research institutions could, in the spirit of "science shop", be designed to “serve” the citizens, investigating in a scientific way topics suggested "by the base", for example in terms of pollution, welfare, safety. Again, we need collective tools to stimulate, refine and manage these proposals. The Science Cafés may have a useful role as a mediator between research organizations and citizenship.

The cognitive roots of participation

One may wonder why citizens should be willing to participate in such projects, which often involve a personal commitment and that do not typically offer direct revenue. The theme is obviously very broad and we cannot address it here in detail, but it definitely has to do with the emergence of cooperation, with the role of the reputation and the mechanism of formation of group opinions.

The basic idea is that humans have a certain tendency to cooperation, depending on the type of context. This is a problem that has been studied both by psychologists, social scientists and by biologists. Summarizing a famous essay (which is also contested) [], humans can cooperate (as indeed do many animals) because of their relationship kinship, because they expect a direct or indirect reciprocity, because of the structure of social relationships (in particular the role of reputation), or because, indirectly, the group consisting of co-operators have an advantage over those that include both co-operators and profiteers.

Obviously these factors (except the first) are present in all cases where we observe collective elaboration, participation and cooperation, and we must keep them in mind when it comes to designing with a social cooperative. This is why it is so important to treat the appearance of the group and encourage the active participation of the people, recognizing the personal contributions.

Another important question is how to participate. Our communication skills and participatory engagement have developed in contexts very different from the current ones, especially very different from the Internet. We are used to talking to three to four partners (a discussion group), to work in small groups of 7-12 people, and we feel intimidated by larger groups, we feel like "crowd". In addition, our cognitive skills usually include a group of personal contacts of the order of 150 people (Dunbar's number's_number).

Finally, studies on communication modalities show that during the assimilation of information, such as when we watch TV or even assist a conference, we are unable to actively process the incoming material, because we cannot pause the information flow to discuss it with some colleagues

These elements should be taken into account in the design phase of a communication tool, such as the Science Café and its extension on the web. For example, the arrangement of people in a science café should encourage the formation of discussion groups, placing the people around the tables, and one should encourage the collective processing by providing breaks (where maybe one can order a beer). How to “port” these concepts on the web, is one of the topics addressed by the project SciCafe2.0.

Let’s discuss it together

To focus on this set of proposals, we would like to use the same Science Café instrument, and therefore we would like to organize an open meeting on the occasion of the festival of science in Genoa, where all the people who may be involved are invited: associations of science popularization, research organizations, researchers and citizens. To ensure the maximum participation, the event will be streamed, and various methods of distant participation will be used.