Dr. Bianca Currie


The Director of the Sustainability Research Unit spoke to two audiences of academics and public members as part of the National Science Week celebrations at the Nelson Mandela University Science Faculty Symposium on the 18th of July in Port Elizabeth, and as part of the George Campus Executive Public Lecture Series on the 6th of September 2018.  

Science creates and influences our reality, and the way we live our lives.  Scientific definitions also influence the policies and legislation by which we govern.  The problem is that science creates reality for “them” but often without “them”.  Involving citizens in science can empower participants to influence policy and the decisions made about the environment around them, and the lives they may live. 

Dr. Currie used complex social ecological systems in the natural sciences to illustrate how involving citizens in science can help deepen democracy by developing citizens capacity to participate.  The participation of “non-scientific experts” in research to understanding social ecological systems can provide insight into social, ethical and political values that cannot be gained through traditional scientific approaches. The outcomes of such research can include informed natural resource management, environmental protection, protected areas planning and policy making, fostering public input and engagement and the development of social capital.  Examples of methods used to involve stakeholders and citizens in social ecological systems research include agent based models and role playing games, social learning workshops and participatory mapping. Dr. Currie believes citizen science has an important place in Africa to help the voices of people to be heard and to uplift communities. It can help drive public engagement in a democracy, empower communities to be involved in decision making that can affect them.  Citizen science can also create linkages and facilitate dialogue between society, science and  policy. 

The presentation pointed out that involving citizens in science does however require deliberate design.  Scientific and public interests must come together in the identification of questions or issues and in developing project infrastructure and implementation.  Observations and experiences emerge from the collaborative research process and produce scientific outcomes in the form of research findings and publications, benefits for social ecological systems such as actions and legislation.  The outcomes can also include the development of relationships and access to information and news skills on an individual level.  The impacts of deliberately designing research to involve the public include new understanding and knowledge, sustainability and resilience of our natural systems and importantly, democratic agency and empowerment.

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Bianca Currie