PULLMAN – Scott Frickel has been awarded a $56,908 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund innovative research on the use of citizen-based science in response to the gulf oil spill disaster.
 
“Citizen science,” a method involving collaboration between scientists and members of a community, seeks to advance scientific knowledge and societal well-being in concert. While the approach is not new, little is known about what makes citizen-based science projects succeed or fail.
 
Frickel, associate professor of sociology, will work in New Orleans with local Vietnamese fishermen and Jeffrey Wickliffe, an environmental toxicologist from Tulane University. They will examine the effects of the oil spill and investigate how experts collaborate with area residents to produce meaningful results for both the scientific and local communities.
 
Methods and goals
Frickel will use mixed methods and a parallel study design to accomplish two goals:
 
* examine the social conditions and processes that produce or forestall community-driven initiatives;
* and expand environmental knowledge about the outcomes of the disaster.
 
In addition to the combined expertise provided by environmental scientists and social scientists, the interdisciplinary effort will include the expertise of Vietnamese-Americans whose livelihoods rely on commercial and subsistence fishing.
 
The findings from the parallel study will advance the basic social studies of science, providing insight into the lay/expert collaboration process that generates successful citizen science.
 
The collaboration will produce a toxicological study of wetland contamination, including exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons and the genetic impacts on shrimp in the area.
 
Building trust in science
When the British Petroleum mobile oil drilling rig exploded on April 20 – releasing over three months approximately 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – it created what is considered the largest marine oil spill in history.
 
After meeting with President Obama, BP executives created a $20 billion response fund to aid in restoration and cleanup efforts. Because the majority of the research conducted in the Gulf has been performed by BP, or by firms being paid by BP, local fishermen often do not trust the information they receive.
 
“There are just phenomenal amounts of distrust down here,” Frickel said.
 
By collaborating with fishermen, he hopes to provide community members with research they can believe in.
 
“Ideally this research will give the community some knowledge they can and will trust,” Frickel said. “Hopefully, learning and experiencing how science is done will build some faith in the research process and at the same time improve the quality of the knowledge the project produces.”
 
Addressing local needs
Frickel is working with the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation (MQVN) in New Orleans to assess the needs of the community and recruit volunteers. MQVN was created by community leaders shortly after Hurricane Katrina to help Vietnamese-Americans in the area rebuild their lives.
 
“(Participating in) a citizen science study is crucial because it allows the community to fashion a research proposal that directly addresses their specific needs,” said Daniel Nguyen, program director for MQVN.
 
Through a series of meetings, community surveys and interviews, Frickel has been able to determine what is important to the people of the area and what questions they would most like to see answered.
 
“(This process) ensures that the research ultimately benefits and is useful to the participating community,” Nguyen said.
 
“Our goal here, in theory and practice, is to make that collaboration the best we can,” Frickel said. “Citizen scientists are integral to the process from beginning to end.”
 
The research also is groundbreaking because it involves immigrants, a subset of the population that historically has not had meaningful involvement in scientific research.
 
“We hope to build the capacity of community members to actively (take part) in future scientific research endeavors,” Nguyen said.
 
Citizen collaborators
Nearly all of the volunteers Frickel works with are dependent on fishing to sustain their way of life. They are local residents concerned about the environmental and economic effects of the spilled oil that may impact them long after cleanup is complete.
 
“Ultimately, we would like to find out about some of the effects of the oil spill in such a manner that addresses specific community concerns as opposed to the concerns of those funding the cleanup efforts,” Nguyen said.
 
It is just as important, Nguyen said, to have community involvement from the start so the resulting data will be viewed with trust.
 
Citizen-based research is not common practice in the scientific community, but Frickel believes it has its place, especially in situations like the Gulf oil spill.
 
“The standard assumption that people without Ph.D.s don’t have any sort of expertise that would enable the production of better and more robust science is, in many cases, frankly quite wrong,” Frickel explained. “The fishermen have a depth of knowledge that is really unquantifiable; their input has helped us generate a research design that we would not have come up with on our own. They have been really important already, and we are just getting started.”