Author: Luka van der Veer
Law, Science, Technology and Society Research Group
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

With this first blog post from SOCIO-BEE, I would first like to briefly introduce our role as a partner in the project so that it is clear what we do. VUB-LSTS is an interdisciplinary Research Group on Law, Science, Technology & Society (LSTS) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), focusing upon the articulations of law, science, technology, ethics and society. VUB-LSTS will contribute to the consortium and the project by conducting legal and ethical research, with a particular focus on data protection and privacy.

Because of our position, it is interesting to take a closer look at the legal and ethical issues associated with the context of citizen science because of the potential implications. SOCIO-BEE participants will have an active involvement in the research process rather than the more passive roles in traditional scientific research. Therefore, I will briefly discuss here some of the work we have done as a partner in recent months on law and ethics in citizen science and the lessons we have learned from it.

The importance of data in SOCIO-BEE

The literature with respect to citizen science and data management strongly emphasises the importance of correct research data management throughout the data life cycle in citizen science projects which allows a project «to create data that are open and meaningful to the community and beyond». Within SOCIO-BEE we have already agreed on and undertaken various measures “to ensure the usability and reusability of research data before, during and after the research project” (Hansen et al., 2021).
Empowering SOCIO-BEE researchers and citizen scientists through good research practice
For instance, a data management plan (known as DMP) was created by the VUB together with the SOCIO-BEE partners in the beginning of the project and contained the first steps to make the research data findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR) for Horizon 2020 beneficiaries. These different steps can prepare the necessary infrastructure to increase access to and re-use of data, which research shows is not always evident in citizen science projects (Bowser et al., 2020). The steps taken therefore reinforce the credibility, reputation and sustainability of citizen science, and thus add to one of the most important components of citizen science, namely: the capacity to make normative claims about certain problems using data. This, in turn, can strengthen the policy-uptake of this data and empower citizen scientists and their communities (Balázs et al., 2021; Hansen et al., 2021).

The further elaboration of good research data management (RDM) practices could be strengthened by, among other things, drawing up a research protocol for citizen science that also closely addresses the data aspect. In SOCIO-BEE we are currently working on our own version, which should preferably be as inclusive as possible for different groups in society.

Keeping an eye on the developments in the field

SOCIO-BEE contains numerous aspects that make it an interesting case study in terms of law and ethics in the context of citizen science. This includes the use of innovative technologies (including drones, wearables, AI techniques), the importance of different data practices, the participation of vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, the disabled and taking gender inequalities into account.

This is happening at a time when these aspects are subject to rapid legal development within the European Union (EU). It is crucial for SOCIO-BEE to follow these developments closely, since this is necessary for the compliance of the project, but it also offers opportunities to develop best practices in the field of law and ethics in citizen science.

Let it be clear that these developments are not inevitably limiting for projects like SOCIO-BEE. On the contrary, it shows us that “EU policy-makers and institutions are adopting increasingly open, transparent and participatory decision-making processes” because the public today “expects governments to make transparent, evidence-based policies and decisions” (European Commission, 2020).

Another important aspect of these developments is the European legislation on air quality. The EU has issued a variety of legislation to combat polluting air, including the Ambient Air Quality Directive. This EU directive is of interest to SOCIO-BEE because it deals with general air pollution in the EU and includes a limit on harmful air pollution outdoors according to art. 13, which may have repercussions on the results of the citizen science data. Recent EU legal developments show that there may be legal consequences if this limit is exceeded, and citizens may thus exhaust their rights to demand action from governments in national courts (see for instance Court of Justice of the European Union cases such as C-752/18). In cases where citizens collect environmental data through, for example, wearable sensor devices, they can provide evidence of environmental infringements and claim their rights.

Looking at the future: the value of communication and resources sharing

In the coming months, we will be working from the VUB on The Knowledge Powerhouse for Citizen Science on Law and Ethics with which we want to communicate resources as well as project work on law and ethics to the public.

Given this and our previously mentioned work, the importance of clear and inclusive communication with the public and specifically our different citizen science participants cannot be underestimated in the work we do as a VUB partner, but also the whole SOCIO-BEE consortium. This is certainly indispensable when talking about the relationship between citizens and science.

The rapidly increasing popularity of citizen science in the 21st century is one not without consequences, as “it points to a potential transformation in the modes of public participation in science” (Strasser et al., 2019). It is up to us, as a consortium, to adopt a permanent reflexive attitude in which we involve citizen scientists and other stakeholders as actively and accessibly as possible with the project.