The U.S has cleared the way for the use of citizen science by federal government agencies and departments in a new law titled the American Competitiveness and Innovation Act (ACIA) (awaiting presidential signature).
The ACIA as a whole should be of interest to Canadians, as it lays out the principles for how the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States should approach its mandate to support scientific research. Earlier bills failed to reach acceptable compromises; some of these would have restricted types of scientific research funded by the NSF to specific sectors. This has echoes of the controversial choices in Canada under the previous government to focus on applied rather than basic scientific research. The American Competitiveness and Innovation Act has moved away from this narrow approach and sets out two main criteria for funding scientific research: intellectual merit and broader public impacts.
The ACIA contains a distinct section titled the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act (CCSA) which paves the way for the use by government agencies and departments of scientific research practices based upon distributed public participation. The CCSA defines citizen science as “a form of open collaboration in which individuals or organizations participate voluntarily in the scientific process in various ways.” (§402(3)(c)(1)) The level of participation can vary, and may include public participation in the development of research questions or in project design, in conducting research, in collecting, analyzing or interpreting data, in developing technologies and applications, in making discoveries and in solving problems. In its preamble, the CCSA acknowledges some of the unique benefits of crowd-sourced research, including cost-effectiveness, providing hands-on learning opportunities, and encouraging greater citizen engagement.
Significantly, the CCSA also mandates that any data collected through citizen science research enabled under the legislation should be made available to the public as open data in a machine-readable format unless to do so is against the law. It also requires the agency to provide notifications to the public about the expected use of the data, any ownership issues relating to the data, and how the data will be made available to the public. (I note that these issues are addressed in my co-authored guide Managing Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science published by the Wilson Center Commons Lab.) The statute also encourages agencies, where possible, to make any technologies, applications or code that are developed as part of the project available to the public. This legislated commitment to open research data and open source technology is an important public policy statement.
One barrier to the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science in the government context is the fear of liability within the risk-averse culture of governments. The CCSA addresses this by proving that participants in citizen science projects enabled under the statute agree to assume all risks of participation, and to waive any claims of liability against the federal government or its agencies.
The CCSA permits federal agencies to partner with community groups, other government agencies, or the private sector for the purposes of carrying out citizen science research. After a two-year grace period, the statute also requires the filing of reports on any citizen science or crowd-sourcing projects carried out under the CCSA, and contains detailed requirements for the content of any such report.
The inclusion in this science and innovation bill of provisions that are specifically designed to facilitate and encourage the use of citizen science by governments is a significant development. It is one that should be of interest to a federal government in Canada that is attempting to carve out space for itself as open, pro-science and keen to engage citizens. Citizen science has significant potential in many fields of scientific research; it also brings with it benefits in terms of education, citizen engagement, and community development.