On epistemic representation and resistance, insights from our ECSA 2022 interactive session


The European Citizen Science Association Conference 2022 took place from October 5-8 in Berlin, Germany.  SensJus participated and convened two interactive, highly dynamic, in-person sessions. Here, we reflect on the main takeaways of "Interactive Session 9: The wickedness of citizen science, law and planetary health grappling with trust, democracy and representation", organized together with Dick Kasperowski, from the University of Gothenburg. 

We deployed an interesting exercise where we asked participants to defend pre-assigned arguments that they had to develop in smaller groups and then expose against 'opposing parties' like in a court setting. The aim of the exercise was to address questions such as: "What are the implications for democracy of bringing citizen science in courts?"; "Using law and international conventions to exclude the role of national public authorities in conflicts about environmental management is undemocratic?"; and "Is reactive citizen science improving the system by opening up institutional informational monopolies, or rather weakening trust in science and institutions?". We did not discuss these questions in abstract terms, as we situated them in two real cases that we as conveners briefly illustrated at the beginning.

Methodological takeaways from the exercise include: polarizing the debate helps to make arguments emerge but does not make justice to the nuances of the matter at issue; for the next time, it could be useful to include in the exercise the provision of cards to be chosen randomly by the two groups with additional data on the cases to inform arguments; furthermore, participants suggested that it could be important to not only have two groups representing respectively the civic initiative and the government but also one group for the corporation(s). In addition, this exercise is very context-dependent as it varies based on the context (geographical, social, political..) in which the citizen science initiative is inserted.

A group was asked to advocate for the legitimate role of environmental groups in bringing their governments to court for inaction to protect the environment demonstrated (also) based on citizen science as a form of epistemic representation and resistance is an effective way to cope with governmental failures and offer institutions resources that they lack. This group contested the fact that governments are not allocating resources to monitor what matters to people. They also argued that bringing governments to court based on citizen science is also a way to force governments to comply with already existing laws and to ensure that governmental monitoring is not subdued to corporate interests.

The group advocating against epistemic representation and resistance argued that the action of the civic science organizations bringing the government to court is damaging the government's attempt to balance interests and resources allocation. Furthermore, they defended that it could risk further polarizing the debate and fostering 'infodemics'. Lastly, they noted that all this might create a precedent that stimulates a loop of civic contestation hampering the smooth identification and deployment of governmental priorities and agendas.

The session just hinted to but could not address in-depth the complexity of the matter(s) at issue. Local aspects and networks of actors within contexts should also be considered in answering the questions posed. These aspects include relations between rural and urban communities, the disparities between small individual owners and large corporations, the issue of financial subsidies for environmental protection, the clash between left and right political ideologies, the continuous adjustments of national laws and international conventions.

Some of these themes are addressed in the forthcoming Special Issue (that will be published at the end of January 2023) titled "Where Environmental Citizen Science meets the Law" that we are curating on the Journal 'Citizen Science Theory and Practice'. See also a previous blog post on the session organized at ECSA 2022 and on the launch of the special issue.

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