Fleur Froeling turns citiznes into co-researchers
Aren't you the scientist here?!
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. This African proverb holds a valuable message for the scientific community. Which is what researcher Fleur Froeling – a strong advocate for engaging with citizens – must have thought as well. She involved non-scientists in every stage of her research, including choosing a topic. The result: wood smoke.
Any research stands to benefit from citizen involvement
Four years ago, Fleur Froeling interviewed for a PhD track in citizen science without knowing exactly what her research project would be about. What she did know, however, was that it had to fulfil three criteria: importance to society, environment and health. The common thread uniting these aspects was citizen science.
Froeling began without a research question.
Before I started the study, the team had explored which environment-related topics were getting a lot of attention in the media, she says.
Wood smoke kept popping up, for instance in connection with barbecues, fireplaces and burning biomass. When I started in 2019, I put out a call online for people to send me their questions about wood smoke. Once again, the topic turned out to be a hot issue. She herself never expected it to be the centre of so much heated debate. Froeling received no less than 130 unique questions, ranging from ‘What will the ash from my neighbour's wood-burning stove do to my tomatoes?’ to ‘Does my car cause more pollution than my wood-burning stove?’.
In order to pick just one research question from the many, I talked to study participants, RIVM, the Public Health Service of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. That brought me to the research question: How does wood smoke affect health? We picked the research locations together as well: IJburg, Bergen, Zutphen and De Meern.
Participants sceptical at first
The first meeting for the research project was held in IJburg.
A really nerve-racking experience, because I had no idea how many people were going to show up,” Froeling recalls. Luckily the turnout was greater than expected, although attendees were sceptical. “People were suspicious; they were wondering: ‘What do you want from us? Why do you need us, anyway? Aren’t you the scientist here?!’ Then I explained that we weren’t doing a study about them, but with them. According to Froeling, her study benefited from involving residents.
They know the area and know where you can smell wood smoke; they were also helpful for things like finding a good location for the measuring station. Using all that input, my colleagues and I drew up a plan for the research. I told the group that it wasn't possible for us to study every single aspect, such as the individual health effects, for instance. What we could do was install a measuring station at the neighbourhood level and use it to quantify the health effects on a specific group. At first, I saw that as a drawback, but the participants pointed out the advantage. By doing so, we had shifted the perspective from an individual issue to a nuisance affecting the entire neighbourhood. Not only did the surrounding residents help with decision-making, but they helped conduct the research as well. For example, they kept diaries of wood smoke-related symptoms for a period of three months, measured their lung function twice a day and connected saliva samples.
The preliminary results were presented to the public
More and more trust
At the first meeting, people were mostly concerned with expressing their frustrations and concerns. Starting with the second meeting, however, there was more room for conversations about the content of the research.
And so the citizens became true co-researchers, Froeling says.
Later in the process, when a newcomer would enter the discussion with a heated or un-nuanced stance, the other participants would correct them. They’d say, ‘We understand your frustration, but we're here to do research’. The people’s trust in the research grew; they were quite committed and remained involved with the study from start to finish. A bond formed between the researcher and the participants. Froeling:
I know the name of every participant and have even visited some of them at home.
Whenever Froeling felt tired and discouraged during the study, all she had to do was open her inbox.
I often received emails from participants saying they appreciated my research and telling me about their experiences. As a researcher, that brought me close to the people who deal with wood smoke on a daily basis. I felt like my work was valuable to them.
The cooperation with citizens could also be complicated at times.
I ran into all manner of challenges, Froeling says.
For instance, I had to make sure they stayed involved as the study went on. That was quite difficult, because this kind of research takes years to complete. On top of which, the outcomes were not always in line with their expectations. Transparency was Froeling’s chosen tactic.
I was open with them about the research process and the challenges that go along with it. That built a lot of trust. And problems more or less resolved themselves.
All the emails from participants made me feel like my work was valuable
Talking openly about the results
As with the rest of the study, the non-scientists were involved in the results stage as well.
Normally, we would only share the preliminary results with colleagues, Froeling explains.
But this time, those preliminary results were presented to the public. Participants and journalists were there too, but nobody leaked anything about it. It wasn’t until we gave the green light that people began to enthusiastically share and discuss the definitive results in debates, on X (formerly Twitter) and through flyers.
The research showed that short-term exposure to wood smoke causes shortness of breath without physical exertion. People also tend to take more medicines as their wood smoke exposure increases, even if they do not suffer from asthma or COPD. The symptoms disappear when the wood smoke levels decrease. These results came as no surprise to the participants. Froeling explains that for them, the results merely confirmed what their gut told them. They were relieved – now they had evidence in the form of the research report and therefore arguments to support their gut feelings. There was one remark that has stuck in Froeling’s mind: “
Apparently I'm not the only person bothered by wood smoke; it causes problems for healthy people, too.’” Once again working in cooperation with citizens, Froeling wrote a policy summary about the results, which she shared with the Dutch House of Representatives. The research results helped advance the dialogue between policymakers and people who experience health problems as a result of wood smoke. The study benefited the participants on a personal level as well. People felt like their voices were heard and that they are now part of a larger community. Others learned something new about scientific research.
Achieving greater impact
According to Froeling, any research stands to benefit from the involvement of non-scientists, in all kinds of ways.
You achieve greater impact, the questions are better aligned to the needs, people feel seen and heard and are more inclined to participate. Scientists tend to focus on the obstacles and not the amazing things that lie beyond those obstacles. Be open to citizen science and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised!
People felt that their voices were being heard
What is citizen science?
Citizen science is science in which non-scientists play an active role. They are involved in one, multiple or all phases of the study in question. They might, for instance, help come up with a research question, collect data or present the results of the research. There are many potential benefits to involving citizens in the scientific process. Not only do the needs, questions and ideas from members of the public enrich the science, but citizens also provide a wealth of experience, knowledge and different perspectives. What's more, it gives the general public a better understanding of how science works and provides them with tools for individual action.
You can learn more about Fleur Froeling’s research at charred.sites.uu.nl/het-project
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