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Why Community Science?

At the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC), we understand that words are important. They can communicate power, authority, inclusion, and exclusion. It is in this context that we carefully examined the term “citizen science.” In 2017, after reading comprehensive reports, talking with experts in the field, and listening to people in our local community, we elected to stop using the term “citizen science” at NHMLAC and began using “community science” instead.

We also changed the name of our program to the Community Science Program. Although "citizen" often means simply the resident of a place, it can also be defined as a person who is a legally recognized subject of a place. Because this latter definition has nothing to do with our program, and discouraged the participation of some members of our community, we decided to replace the word "citizen" in the title of our program with the more naturally inclusive word "community."

As a community-based program in a museum that is of, for, and with Los Angeles, it would be counterproductive and against the ethos of our work to risk excluding any person from collaborating on our projects or attending our events based on a misinterpretation of the program’s name. After our name change, the NHMLAC Community Science Program continued to do much of the same work, including finding ways to engage and better meet the needs of more local communities, deepening relationships with our partners, and crowdsourcing data for our museum scientists by organizing “projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real-world questions.” (We continued to use this definition of Citizen Science formerly used by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to describe our work, while also re-examining our roles as partners.) Although we retained membership in, collaborated with, and greatly appreciated the work of many national and international organizations that use the term "citizen science," we are not alone in making this name transition to "community science."

Although the name change works for us here in Los Angeles, it doesn't come without issues. Some view the switch from “citizen science” to “community science” as an act of appropriation or contend that the term community science be solely reserved for projects initiated by the community, in which the community carries all or the majority of the power. At NHMLAC, we chose to broaden this definition of community science and center the voices from our community who told us that the term “citizen science” was harmful to them and that “community science” was a more inclusive and welcoming name for our program.

Today, as science professionals, we are aware that technology and the world of crowdsourcing data are rapidly evolving, and that there is an immediate need to incorporate anti-racist approaches to community science such as co-creating projects and supporting community-led projects. The ability to mobilize large numbers of people to make observations over a broad geographic area, or to engage our community to intimately monitor small areas over time, can enable us to answer complicated scientific questions like never before. In order to accurately and effectively gather data in our urban research areas, it is imperative that we make participation in our projects as accessible and relevant as possible to all people.

As education professionals, we understand that an appreciation of science and the natural world reaches people through many different channels. We are committed to removing any barriers that we might find standing between the members of our community and their connection to science and nature by becoming an actively intersectional anti-racist program. We recognize that this commitment requires us to re-evaluate more than just the name of our program. We must also re-evaluate the power dynamics of our partnerships, the motivations for our scientific questions, how we create and implement our projects and programs, the outcomes of our work, and its impact on the members of our communities.

The NHMLAC Community Science Program welcomes any discussion of our name change, welcomes all people to participate in our projects and events, and looks forward to many valuable new partnerships, and collaborations in the future.