A recent paper by Jill Lindsey Harrison from University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzes the difficulties in involving lay people in participatory research projects. She has interviewed several participants to the monitoring of pesticide pollution in the U.S., local leaders and representatives of the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), who collaborate in the Drift Catcher program. In such participatory research project, citizens have measured the concentration of pesticide in samples taken in nine U.S. states.
Although the participation of citizens is now recognized a positive factor for the ability of science to respond to social demands, it also generates new challenges. The most important one, in Harrison’s view, is the task of giving people the organizational capacity needed to produce reliable observations and data:
“Should a host organization involve community participants in a given PAR project f it cannot provide all of the support that will be needed? The DC case casts doubt on the appropriateness of involving community groups who lack sufficient organizational capacity in such a scenario, since the community group’s available resources could be stretched further through other, less resource‐intensive, organizing tactics.”
Scientists have to be very careful while involving in their work people who lack specific technical skill. First, data can be tricky to interpret, share and use in the public space, which is the ultimate goal for many residents involved in the program. Moreover, if citizens are not supported enough, data collection often produces poor results. This is not only a scientific failure, as Harrison remarks:
“zero results (for whatever reason) can be incredibly deflating and disempowering, given how time‐consuming and resource‐intensive DC projects are.”
Which is not the ultimate scientists goal, is it?
Jill Lindsey Harrison, “Parsing “Participation” in Action Research: Navigating the Challenges of Lay Involvement in Technically Complex Participatory Science Projects”, Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 24 (7) 702 – 716