It started with Topfit CitizenLab, where researchers, social partners and citizens put their heads together for innovative solutions for practical health and wellbeing. In 2021 DesignLab is stepping up its commitment to science for society in a European context, with the set-up of Citizen Science Hubs.
Scientists have always played an important role in meeting society’s challenges, but usually from a comfortable distance. The ivory tower stands as a potent symbol of the separation between the two realms. But no longer. These days, scientists at the University of Twente increasingly work in proactive co-oporation with citizens and other outside partners, right in the heart of society.
The rise of what is called citizen science reflects the need to integrate ethics, societal engagement, gender equality, and governance with research. But foremost, the inclusive character of citizen science is a tool to open up the scientific process, and to promote good practices, increase the input of knowledge and the practical output of science. This also means more transparency, through open access science and education, while balancing this with excellent quality research.
“With this mission in mind, it is no surprise that citizen science requires new approaches and methods,” says Sabine Wildevuur, director of DesignLab, “not only for science education and research, but also for successful collaboration with the public and private organisations. At DesignLab we are more than ready to take on that challenge, together with the University of Twente and partners aiming towards social impact.”
“DesignLab bridges societal challenges with educational activities, research and practical outcomes,” explains Wildevuur. It is guided by three principles: responsible design, transdisciplinary research, and citizen science. “Earlier this year, CitizenLab started as part of the strategic open innovation consortium Topfit, in which health care providers, patient organisations, health insurers, companies and knowledge institutions collaborate.”
With twelve researchers from Saxion College, Enschede, and University of Twente, the Topfit CitizenLab has already launched three citizen science pilot projects, and several activities, to improve the health and wellbeing of citizens in the region, for instance for people with diabetes.
Until now, the focus of the citizen science initiative of DesignLab and its partners was mainly on development and implementation of technological innovations for health and healthcare. Wildevuur: “We will broaden the scope to other fields of research, social issues and target groups. DesignLab is a gateway for private and social partners; through us, citizens and organisations get access to researchers and new innovations that put people first. DesignLab’s ambition is to offer a starting point for citizen science initiatives.”
In order to take citizen science to a national, and even an international level, Wildevuur is a member of the Dutch workgroup Citizen Science of the National Programme Open Science. She says, “At a European level too, there is a steady growth in recognition of the contribution that citizen science can make to excellent and relevant research.”
But systematic collaboration with partners outside the academic world is not always easy. The first European Citizen Science Commission concluded that, in 2016. A top-down approach does not work, was one of the lessons learned. The voices of citizens, scientists and other professionals must all be heard, to be successful. “Collaboration and co-creation alone, are also not enough; citizen science requires a complementary range of skills in students and researchers’, adds Wildevuur who, as sponsoring director of the strategic expert group science UT, is engaged in the further development of new methods of research and collaboration, with focus on citizen science. The group also aims, importantly, to make citizen science methods available for all academic research in and outside the University of Twente.
Wildevuur: “Traditionally, academic training and research focusses on scientific competencies and methods. That is still our solid base, as scientists. But citizen science adds an extra dimension by starting the scientific process with the identification of the real-life issues that our communities, people and social organizations are facing. From the start, the focus is on positive social impact.”
It is key to make citizen science projects more rewarding and feasible for scientists, the European Citizen Science Commission has stated. The overall field of science must, therefore, widen its key performance indicators, train scientists in principles, and reward public participation. “This is a mission for the whole science community,” acknowledges Wildevuur.
“The next step of DesignLab and partners will be the setting up of a Citizen Science Hub for the whole of the University of Twente and beyond,” she says. This idea of a Citizen Science Hub-UT is in line with the European Union’s Responsible Research Innovation programme. The hub will also be the link to the activities of the European Consortium of Innovative Universities and is applied within the European project INCENTIVE, that will start in 2021. Wildevuur: “This hub will further develop the ‘Twente Model’ for citizen science, and share knowledge, skills and good practices with the international network of citizen science. Everybody is invited!”
This article is part of the new DesignLab magazine, that features stories about how collaboration and innovation leads to impact on society. Read the full magazine here.
If you want to learn more about Citizen Science or join the discussion, then you’re most welcome at the Citizen Science conference on November 20th.