Anthropocene and Citizen Science

Workshop Report: Anthropocene and Citizen Science: Evidence Gained through the “Opening-up” of Academic Knowledge Production? (19–20 July 2018, Munich)

By Fabienne Will

*Photos courtesy of author

In July 2018, the Deutsches Museum hosted a workshop organized by the two projects Evidence Practices at the Interstice of Sciences, Humanities and the Public: The Anthropocene Debate and Evidence in Citizen Science: Between Non-Certified Expertise, Professional Supervision, and Mechanization, which together form a tandem called Entanglement—Science Communities. Both projects are part of the DFG Research Group 2448, Evidence Practices in Science, Medicine, Technology, and Society. The theme of the workshop was Anthropocene and Citizen Science: Evidence Gained through the “Opening-Up” of Academic Knowledge Production? About 40 scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds—ranging from history to philosophy, politics, sociology, ethics, and art to name only a few—participated in the workshop. Journalist and filmmaker Steve Bradshaw, as well as a poet Daniel Falb were among the participants.

Both the Anthropocene debate and citizen science projects are examples of the societal “opening-up” of academic knowledge production that leads to heterogeneous configurations in different ways. Using these two examples, the workshop aimed to explore the question of whether and how such accessible and disparate contexts affect the generation of evidence through scientific methods and practices.

The Anthropocene has developed into a culturally negotiated issue, blurring the boundaries between academic knowledge production and the public, and between the epistemic and the normative. We are observing negotiation processes that interrogate which kinds of evidence are to be investigated and how. For many, questions also arise about the political and scientific possibilities of participation and influence—and thus of new methodologies that claim to better understand the dysfunctional aspects of the Anthropocene and make them politically relevant.

20180719-IMG_1565The rise of citizen science projects in recent years—like the Anthropocene debate—seems to point similarly to the blurring of boundaries between academic knowledge production and the public. Citizen science projects thus represent, in their ideal form, scientific collaborations that include the active participation of other stakeholders. Concepts such as public engagement and open science are currently framing these (new) modes of knowledge production. Many citizen science projects focus on environmental issues and environmental monitoring. In these areas, the epistemic and the normative seem to be intertwined in a similar way as in the Anthropocene debate.

The workshop started with a film screening of the movie Anthropocene by Steve Bradshaw, the first feature film on this issue. Combining striking footage with interviews with some of the most visible actors of the Anthropocene debate, it traces the different content-related aspects of the new geological epoch inviting audiences to question whether it is a comedy, a tragedy, or something much more surreal. The screening was followed by a discussion with Steve Bradshaw.

Over the next two days, various sessions discussed new modes of knowledge production that emerge in the context of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in general, as well as through interaction processes between publics, the (mass-)media and scholarship in particular. Contributions ranged from a case study on citizen meteorology to one on the conservation of microbial diversity via home fermentation, from journalistic media practice in the Anthropocene to museums as translators of scientific findings. The discussions showcased that the negotiation processes in those settings are both competitive and cooperative. Considering the different observable changes in knowledge production processes—especially in the environmental realm—through the lenses of citizen science and the Anthropocene gave an idea of how to deal with the legitimacy crisis in the age of postfactism we are currently confronted with.

20180719-IMG_1555The second day concluded with Bruce Lewenstein’s keynote speech on “Visions of Citizen Science in the Anthropocene.” Departing from the analysis of negotiation processes between experts and the public about aspects of the Anthropocene, he focused on understanding competing visions of citizen science in order to better understand the different natures of expertise. From this perspective, he addressed the overarching question of the connection between the production of scientific knowledge on the one hand, and democratic communities on the other.

In two roundtable discussions, participants focused on common challenges, definitions, approaches, potentials, and necessities of citizen science in the age of the Anthropocene.

The workshop showcased the high potential of citizen science in communicating the Anthropocene and activating people to engage with and feel responsible towards anthropogenic issues.

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