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Research Questions

  1. What is the nature of community citizen science and its potential uses?
  2. What are some implementation needs and challenges?
  3. What are some pathways through which community citizen science can achieve policy and community impacts?
  4. What are some challenges that could keep community citizen science from achieving its potential?

Citizen science is the use of scientific methods by the general public to ask and answer questions and solve problems. In community citizen science, groups of volunteers exert a high degree of control over research, working with professional scientists during the research process and performing research on their own. This important, yet understudied, model often focuses on addressing community concerns. A better characterization of community citizen science could yield insights into important barriers and opportunities for translating its research into action.

In this report, the authors characterize the nature of community citizen science and its potential uses, identify implementation needs and challenges, conceptualize pathways through which community citizen science could achieve policy and community impacts, and elucidate challenges that might impede people from achieving their goals. Part of their research included interviewing representatives of three community citizen science projects carried out for disaster response and recovery: SkyTruth pollution tracking applications; Planetary Response Network activations for disaster response; and the Blue Water Task Force and Hurricane Maria–related activities of the Rincón, Puerto Rico, chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

The authors used findings from the disaster response and recovery case studies to identify specific considerations for community citizen science implementation and impacts. Interviews with general citizen science experts provided a greater understanding of how the cultures and institutions that make up the larger field of citizen science could shape and react to the development of community citizen science.

Key Findings

Community citizen science and traditional scientific institutions reflect different cultures

  • Concerns about the rigor of community citizen science arise mainly from traditional scientific institutions.
  • Distinctions between professional scientists and community citizen scientists can seem unclear — both groups might use the same methods, but professionals have more-extensive formal credentials and are given greater benefit of the doubt.
  • Community citizen science might operate under a different research paradigm from that of traditional science.

Community citizen science can creatively leverage resources to address project implementation challenges

  • Community citizen science can face many challenges to project implementation, including scaling and replicating activities, balancing the roles of professional and citizen scientists, navigating competition and duplication within the field, clearly communicating project mission and objectives, and obtaining needed project resources.
  • Disaster-related community citizen science can leverage creative solutions to address challenges.

Conveying credibility and promoting community citizen science research will be important for meeting policy-related objectives

  • Policy-relevant outcomes can motivate community citizen science research more than they do other research models.
  • There are many avenues to convey credibility of community citizen science and promote its uses.


  • To enhance credibility and gain access to resources, community citizen science leaders should strive to integrate their programs with established scientific institutions through partnerships, publications, or research dissemination avenues.
  • To address challenges in partnerships and funding, project leadership should diversify funding streams and reach out to nontraditional entities for help with resources. This could be accomplished by establishing organizational reputation within communities in which resources might be pursued or by developing personal relationships with influential community or organizational actors regardless of immediate project needs.
  • To address challenges in technology and infrastructure, project teams should leverage existing technologies and tools while taking into account design and usability for project goals and participants.
  • To address challenges in volunteer participation, project leadership should know the likely volunteer pool so that project objectives can be aligned with volunteer motivations. Leaders must also take into account barriers to project accessibility (e.g., timing, costs, technology needs), demonstrate to volunteers that they are valued, ensure proper volunteer training, pursue media coverage for activities, and issue communications in a wide range of venues.
  • To address challenges in organizational support and leadership structures, project leadership should widen leadership circles, promote or retain a robust volunteer base, identify and nurture highly committed volunteers, and create leadership training programs.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two


  • Chapter Three

    Case Study Descriptions

  • Chapter Four

    Thematic Analyses

  • Chapter Five


Research conducted by

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by the Community Health and Environmental Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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