How citizen science can benefit research in tackling societal problems

Centre for Decision Research

Dr Gulbanu Kaptan is an Associate Professor in Behavioural Decision Making at Leeds University Business School. Her research interests focus on judgement and decision-making with a special interest in food-related decision-making, designing risk (benefit) communications, and interventions related to food consumption and waste. Gulbanu is PI on the “Using citizen science to explore plant breeding and investigate food-chain transparency for novel breeding methods” research project and was a contributor and reviewer for the UK POST note on Genome edited food crops. Jasmine Mohsen is a doctoral researcher at Leeds University Business School. Her research interests focus on consumer behaviour and psychology, and branding and digital marketing. She is a Research Assistant on the “Using citizen science to explore plant breeding and investigate food-chain transparency for novel breeding methods” research project.

Small plant in the ground with biochemistry graphic overlay

Citizen science as a research method to democratise scientific research  

Citizen science involves members of the public volunteering to help researchers by designing research projects and collecting data. It can help democratise science by bringing the public and scientific community closer together. Citizen science involves the public more deeply in dialogues and decision-making around issues related to societal and environmental challenges such as food insecurity, food waste, and air pollution.  

Applying citizen science to social science research has various benefits that include: 

  • improving public understanding of science 
  • raising citizens’ awareness of environmental issues that may have a greater impact on fostering trust between science and society 
  • encouraging engagement of citizens with researchers and policymakers to help them design or tailor new policies that suit citizens’ needs 
  • achieving social well-being and improving the economy by improving the quality of the data collected and increasing its applicability to society through the active participation of citizens in research. 

With a similar approach based on mutual benefits, our research team (Gulbanu Kaptan, Edgar Meyer, Joshua Weller, Huw Jones, Baruch Fischhoff, Jasmine Mohsen, An Nguyen, and Heather Briggs) applied a citizen science approach to a project on the implementation of gene editing into food systems.  

In partnership with the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) and co-funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), our project aimed to improve participants’ knowledge of conventional and novel plant breeding methods, and broaden the understanding of the public’s needs and expectations regarding a transparent food system that involves the implementation of gene editing. 

The active involvement of volunteers in our research benefited both the volunteers and our research. The volunteers benefitted by increasing their knowledge on conventional and novel plant breeding techniques including gene editing, and our research team benefitted by being able to improve our understanding of the issue by looking at it from the citizens’ perspective. 

Applying citizen science to research on the implementation of gene editing into food systems 

Plant breeding to produce genetically improved species (for example, making precursors of today’s well-known crops such as maize, wheat and apples more resistant to diseases, higher-yielding, and more nutritious) has been practised for millennia. 

However, the science of plant breeding is moving so fast that most consumers have little opportunity to learn about it. Our project is designed to listen to consumers in order to learn which issues most interest them and how to make that science available in a usable, trustworthy, and transparent way. 

Gene editing is a laboratory technique that results in genetic changes equivalent to those used in traditional plant breeding. However, it is a more advanced technology than conventional breeding and genetic modification, with the potential to help produce abundant and healthy food with less negative impact on the environment. 

The implementation and continued use of novel food technologies depend, in part, on public acceptance of the technology. Although risk and benefit perceptions have been found as important drivers of consumer acceptance of different food technologies, recent research concludes that knowledge, as well as perceived trust in institutions and supply chains, influence public acceptance either directly or indirectly via risk or benefit perceptions.  

In relation to building knowledge, this cannot be achieved by sharing subject-specific information on one occasion but rather gradually with deliberative, participatory, and transparent approaches. 

To improve citizen participants’ knowledge and increase their involvement in our project, we designed exercises to help them engage with the project and help the project team to collect data. These exercises led our citizen scientists to realise how unfamiliar they were with conventional plant breeding methods such as vertical farming and F1 hybrids, and the growing process of the fruits and vegetables.  

Their feedback about the exercises and responses to a short survey helped the project team develop educational videos designed to increase knowledge about plant breeding methods and the regulatory framework.  

The improvement in our citizen scientists’ knowledge was assessed through a short survey and focus groups at the end of the project. The responses indicated that the educational videos and interactions with the research team promoted citizen scientists’ knowledge about conventional and novel plant breeding methods.  

The results also showed that citizen participants trusted the UK regulatory agencies, but that they did not agree that the food supply chain is transparent with respect to how the food is grown.  

The results of the project were disseminated to a diverse group of stakeholders (UK government agencies, policymakers, plant breeders etc) at an Ideas in Practice event in London in January 2023, to help them with their ongoing work on the implementation of gene editing into the food system. The results will also be published in a joint report that is being prepared by the UKRI and FSA. 

Our approach to citizen science enabled the volunteers to contribute to the research project. It highlighted how, by having researchers and citizen scientists, we can help create solutions for businesses and government agencies to tackle environmental challenges with support from society.  

This project was funded by the UKRI and the FSA. Further funding was supplied by the Leeds University Business School Impact Leadership Award (March – July 2022).  

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