Citizen Inquiry: Barriers, Challenges And Enablers For Public Engagement

Lead Research Organisation: University of Hull
Department Name: Education Studies


This project brings together a team of researchers at the University of Hull and three external stakeholder groups - Hull City Council; Groundwork and Probe - to explore how Citizen Inquiry methodologies and digital technologies can improve the quality of research that has public value. An important part of our work is to ensure our research is informed and used by the people who live in the communities around us. Citizen Science is a way of designing research that involves the general public or 'citizens' as contributors and collaborators in the project. There are various methods that we can use to carry out these inquiries but there are also many barriers and challenges that typically hinder academic researchers in universities from engaging the general public with Citizen Science. One of these is small participation rates and participation which is biased towards white, middle-aged and higher-income people (Defra, 2015) This is an issue that the project will challenge by exploring how researchers and the public can co-design research designed that meets the needs of a more diverse range of the population, particularly hard to reach and under-represented communities - the communities that we most want to work with.
One approach is called Citizen Inquiry which is more participatory in nature and can involve the public is designing the research, collecting and analyzing data and sharing the findings. Digital technologies, such as mobile phones, often play a significant part in this process and this project will explore their effectiveness in engaging groups that are seen as hard to reach and traditionally reluctant to engage in citizen science, such as young people.
The primary aim of the project is to explore how to convince academic researchers that Citizen Science is worthwhile and can add value to their research. We contend that Citizen Inquiry with its greater participatory approach is more likely to achieve this, through, for example, helping researchers to design more effective research questions that focus on issues of greater value to the public. To explore and verify this assumption the project will work with a specific cohort of researchers at the University of Hull who are currently exploring the issue of plastics waste as part of a larger project on plastics funded by the EPSRC. These researchers are part of a team working in what is referred to as the Plastics Collaboratory at the University of Hull. The project will investigate the barriers that traditionally inhibit these researchers from engaging more with the public in the research process itself and those that inhibit the three stakeholder groups themselves from working more closely with the research community.
In the first phase of the project (January - February 2020) this will involve interviews and focus groups with a cross-section of participants from these different communities, leading to a project report and set of recommendations. In the second phase of the project (March-April, 2020), the research community and the three stakeholder groups will be brought together in a collaborative half-day workshop to share their collective wisdom on the issue and to explore how they might use Citizen Inquiry methodologies in the future. This workshop will include practical, hands-on-sessions to explore how mobile technologies and particular apps can be used to undertake Citizen Inquiry projects, laying down a foundation for further activities and engagement beyond the lifetime of the project itself which, if funded, will run from January to April, 2020. The project will conclude in April 2020 with an open conference bringing together researchers and interested stakeholder groups to share the findings from the research and to explore further opportunities to design collaborative research projects and seek additional funding.

Technical Summary

The research explores how Citizen Inquiry (CI), a variant of Citizen Science (CS), using mobile technologies, can support researchers at the University of Hull, and the wider research community, to enhance the quality of their research, and by incorporating CI approaches into their research, work more effectively with external stakeholders, particularly those who are traditionally hard to reach including young people, and marginalised groups. The research is informed by a current EPSRC grant (Evolving a Circular Plastics Economy) that explores the co-design of specific innovations related to the use and re-use of plastics waste based upon the collective wisdom of different stakeholder groups. Funding this UKRI call will enable the Plastics Collaboratory team to better understand both the opportunities and barriers associated with CS investigations and to build their own capacity and capability in the use of digital tools and CI methodologies with various interested parties external to the university. The research team, with expertise in the use of digital technologies to support learning in non-formal settings (see CVs), will conduct interviews and focus groups with a sample of academics from the Plastics Collaboratory and representatives from a range of stakeholder groups that are currently working on topics associated with plastics waste including Hull City Council, Groundwork and Probe. Using the data collected from these interviews the team will facilitate a series of workshops with the respective stakeholder groups, culminating in a combined workshop where researchers from the University and members of the external stakeholder groups, will explore how to use different CI apps and tools on mobile devices, whilst also exploring the issues (barriers and opportunities) around the co-design of research investigations for future endeavors. The outputs from the project will be shared with the wider community through a series of publications and a conference

Planned Impact

In addition to the benefits to the academic community, the research will also initiate social impact as it creates a dynamic through-flow of information sharing by establishing collaborative protocols that will facilitate new ways of working that will benefit local and national policy makers and the general public.
The beneficiaries of this project include:
Public stakeholder groups already engaged in environmental activism such as the Hull City Council Flood Risk Planning and Environment and Climate Change Strategic Directorate.
Community development/youth groups interested in the issues of plastic waste and environmental concerns (e.g. Groundwork)
Cohorts/research participants of fellow research/academics interested/involved in wider public engagement activity (e.g. The Open University)
Young people and adults situated within hard to reach and under-represented communities (accessed through our links with the city council and local community interest organisations)
How might they benefit from this research?
The research will benefit those listed above as follows:
In better understanding what motivates and discourages researchers from engaging with Citizen Science activities, public groups interested in this activity will have a greater understanding and awareness of how to approach the research community in order to engage them in both Citizen Science/Inquiry projects
Engaging researchers/academics from the University of Hull in wider public engagement activities within the city.
The creation of a citizen inquiry methodology which local stakeholders (i.e. Hull City Council; Youth in Nature; Groundwork) may continue to utilise in the future within their own consultation/research mechanisms.
Enhancing the understanding of what motivates members of the public to take part in consultation/research activities.
Being introduced to mobile digital technologies which may be applicable to the furtherance of their own consultation/research and/or future research with external Higher Education partners.
The transfer of knowledge and development of new skills with local community members through co-creating new methodologies which can then be utilised by community activists to engage with other public stakeholder groups as appropriate.
Networking and fostering collaborative partnerships between the university and traditionally hard to reach groups and communities whose voice has been previously under-represented. These partnerships will be actively reinforced and built upon through forthcoming research projects in order that established relationships are maintained and sustained.
Utilising citizen inquiry methodology which will develop greater expertise in using digital mobile technologies which will impact skills development and its associated benefits e.g. employability; confidence; wider social capital.
All participants (academic, public and community) will better understand what motivates and discourages members of the public (especially hard to reach and disadvantaged groups) to get involved in research investigations and this knowledge will inform the design of future community-based research.
The project can also be linked to the achievement of several of the international Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), an example can be provided in SDG 11.b. which aims to "By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards . . . mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters". This project can contribute towards this goal through involving citizens in decision making at a local level through citizen science approaches, e. g. to explore the impacts of climate change and to document disaster responses such as public perception of the threat of floods in Hull in partnership with the Hull City Council Environment and Climate Change Strategic Directorate (see letter of support for details).


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Description A significant finding from this research was the lack of understanding on the part of academic researchers interested in using a Citizen Science approach of how to engage with local community groups and stakeholders interested in their research. Our focus groups at the University of Hull revealed frustration on the part of researchers who did not know who to contact in the local community to initiate a Citizen Science project or how to go about this. We concluded there was an urgent need to establish a directory of interests for stakeholder groups and the research community which would make them more visible and accessible to researchers in the university and community groups alike. We also recommended the creation of a Citizen Science/Inquiry hub at the university which would act as a clearinghouse to match researchers with potential community partners interested in undertaking Citizen Science projects. We recruited several significant stakeholder groups in the region to sign up to this idea and embedded it at the heart of the recent UKRI Citizen Science Collaboration grants call. Unfortunately, this was not awarded funding.

We also discovered that most researchers in the University were unaware of more democratic, bottom-up participatory research approaches, such as Citizen Inquiry which we promoted, but were more inclined to consider and adopt this approach following the workshops we organized with them. These brought together participants from across a range of different community groups and stakeholders including public and private enterprises. The inputs and resources we provided during these workshops had a significant impact on the views and perspectives of many researchers (and external stakeholders) who had not previously considered more collaborative approaches with the public. These have since seeded a number of collaborative projects with academics and members of the public working together as partners in a more balanced relationship.

Finally, our research which centred around a series of focus groups with interested parties, revealed a strong interest and enthusiasm from external stakeholder groups for more participatory Citizen Science approaches such as those we demonstrated and illustrated. Over 100 participants joined our workshops (both face to face and virtual) and expressed an overwhelming interest in working alongside academic researchers as partners, rather than subjects in projects of local interest to them.
Exploitation Route Our research during this project reinforces previous research we have undertaken with various stakeholder groups, that demonstrates how the research community would be well advised to reconceptualize their traditional view of Citizen Science (CS). In traditional CS projects the public and external stakeholder groups, are often used to collect data which is subsequently analyzed and used by the research community alone. The findings from our project demonstrate how many members of the public are interested in Citizen Science projects but desire a more active and equal role than traditional CS allows and are often interested in initiating and being involved in their own projects which we refer to as 'Citizen Inquiry'. In our research, we discovered a close link between levels of engagement and the degree of autonomy and agency granted to participants. This more egalitarian approach is likely to have greater traction and value in engaging marginalised and hard-to-reach groups and communities that may benefit from Citizen Science projects but do not traditionally see them as valuable. We would advocate for the creation of University Citizen Inquiry hubs to facilitate networking between academic researchers and local communities on topics that are seen to be mutually beneficial. Full details of our plans and proposals are available in our recent (unsuccessful) UKRI application for Citizen Science Collaboration grants.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description A large proportion of our project was undertaken during the first national lockdown (March-July 2020) which significantly reduced opportunities to engage with some of the participants we had targeted or to follow up on the research we were able to conduct with them. Nonetheless, we were able to hold three focus group meetings with academics, community and stakeholder groups, and a combination of the two (virtually) during the course of the project. We were interested in investigating how to make citizen science approaches more collaborative and participatory on the part of external stakeholders such as the local council and the number of NGOs. Our overriding interest was to identify approaches and strategies that would support researchers and stakeholder groups in working more effectively on projects of local importance such as environmental and green issues. We taught both the research groups and the stakeholder groups how to organise and run more participatory research approaches such as Citizen Inquiry where the focus of a research project is identified by the participants themselves who then call upon academics to support and work alongside them. Since concluding the project in June 2020 we are aware that a number of external partners have explored the use of Citizen Inquiry methodologies in their own walks of life and some have approached academics in the University to work with them. Unfortunately, the second pandemic wave and subsequent lockdowns have limited opportunities for this to be enacted in practice and we anticipate it will be sometime before we are undertaking actual projects of the type we promoted during the research. A number of local organisations and stakeholder groups, including Hull City Council, have identified this as a priority following the pandemic and we anticipate we will resurrect the groups and approaches we had planned to run in 2020 to support them in this. Despite the problems reported above, the findings from the research were used to support two recent grant applications with a variety of different stakeholder groups focused on Citizen inquiry methodologies. One of these included six external stakeholder groups including Hull City Council and several NGOs representing various youth organizations. We used the findings from this UKRI grant to fashion a case of a new Citizen inquiry Hub based in the University of Hull to support researchers and local groups in identifying suitable partners to work with on Citizen Science type applications. This application was unsuccessful. We also use the findings to inform the design of an Erasmus+ Key Action application linking schools, universities, and NGOs across Europe in a project to engage hard-to-reach and marginalized youth groups in Citizen Inquiry projects such as plastics waste and pollution. We are awaiting the results of this application.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services