Science and Technology Innovation Program

New Visions in Citizen Science

By
Anne Bowser and Lea Shanley

Authors: Anne Bowser and Lea Shanley

Study Director: Lea Shanley. Editor: Aaron Lovell. On behalf of the Commons Lab within Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, with the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Citizen science is one form of open innovation, a paradigm where organizations solicit the efforts of external contributors with unique perspectives who generate new knowledge and technology, or otherwise bolster organizational resources.  Recent executive branch policies encourage and support open innovation in the federal government. The President’s 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government  charged agencies with taking specific action to support transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Similarly, the Obama Administration’s 2013 Memorandum on Open Data Policy—Managing Information as an Asset   instructs agencies to support these principles by sharing government data sets. The Preview Report for the Second Open Government National Action Plan, released October 31, 2013, specifically states that the United States will commit to "harness the ingenuity of the public by enabling, accelerating, and scaling the use of open innovation methods such as incentive prizes, crowdsourcing, and citizen science within the Federal Government.”

This report showcases seventeen case studies that offer a mosaic view of federally-sponsored citizen science and open innovation projects, from in-the-field data collection to online games for collective problem-solving. Its goal is not to provide line-by-line instructions for agencies attempting to create or expand projects of their own; each agency has a unique mission with distinct challenges that inform project designs.  Rather, it offers a sampling of different models that support public contribution, potential challenges, and positive impacts that projects can have on scientific literacy, research, management, and public policy.  

Some case studies represent traditional but well-executed projects that illustrate how citizen science functions at its best, by contributing to robust scientific research.  Other projects, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s International Space Apps Challenge, evolve from these traditional models, demonstrating how open innovation can address agency-specific challenges in new and compelling ways. Through this progression, the evolution of citizen science begins to take shape, and the full possibilities of open innovation begin to emerge.

(Photo credit: NASA International Space Apps Challenge)

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