Scientific research approaches that engage the public in the research process have been evolving and maturing over the past two decades. Community-engaged research (CEnR) projects have become increasingly common in the environmental public health arena with recognized benefits for research and public health. Most recently, citizen science has been gaining national attention as an approach that can be used by academic researchers and federal agencies to work in partnership with community residents across the country. While CEnR and citizen science share many common elements, it is important to appreciate the unique contributions each brings to public health. In an effort to draw attention to these issues, NIEHS program officers Liam O'Fallon and Symma Finn recently reflected upon the similarities and differences between CEnR and citizen science in the Fall 2015 issue of Lab Matters, a quarterly journal of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL).
"As we participated in many different conversations about the novelty of using citizen science approaches, it appeared that the two research approaches were being conflated and there was some confusion about the differences between them," said Finn, who oversees behavioral and social science research grants at NIEHS. "We wanted to help clarify what we see are important distinctions between the approaches with this framework," added O'Fallon, who coordinates the PEPH program.
Using a framework they developed to illustrate the shared elements and distinctions between the two approaches, O'Fallon and Finn posit that the motivations for initiating CEnR and citizen science projects are quite different. CEnR is initiated by academic researchers and is based on the centrality of the scientific questions, with publication and dissemination of results often being the final and desired outcome. On the other hand, citizen science efforts are typically driven by community concerns about environmental exposures or disease, with the goal of near-term translation of results into action to improve community health and inform decision making.
While motivations may differ, the two approaches can also support one another. Finn and O'Fallon suggest that a community partner in a CEnR project may identify new questions or concerns that lead to new citizen science efforts. Likewise, an academic partner in a citizen science project may find a new scientific question to pursue within the CEnR framework.
Regardless of the research approach, CEnR or citizen science, O'Fallon and Finn conclude by emphasizing the need for training and capacity building for both community groups and academics. In this regard, they highlight the potential and promising role public health laboratories can play in these training and capacity-building efforts.
"Much like PEPH, the public health labs are a national network focused on addressing local environmental public health issues," said O'Fallon. "They have an infrastructure in place and a mission to train community residents and academics. Furthermore, many labs want to be partners in these kinds of projects."
Read the full article in the Fall 2015 issue of Lab Matters and check out the APHL website to learn more about the Association of Public Health Laboratories and what services state public health laboratories provide. In addition, be sure to listen to the Air Quality Monitoring for Citizen Science podcast to learn about some of the monitoring technologies being used by citizen scientists and find resources to help you start a project in your community.