Lessons learned: Involving governmental stakeholders and citizens in your research design

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By Sueli Brodin, MPCER team member.  The main outcomes of the workshop entitled "Involving non-academic actors in researching climate-related flood risks", jointly offered by MPCER and YUFERING on 7 June 2022.


It takes more than involving governmental stakeholders and citizens in your research design to make it community-engaged. The notion of cognitive justice can help to think about the difference between community-engaged science and science communication and how to effectively engage with the community. These were the main outcomes of the workshop entitled "Involving non-academic actors in researching climate-related flood risks", jointly offered by MPCER and YUFERING on 7 June 2022.


  • Consider not only whom to involve in your community-engaged research design, but also how and why.
  • Consider the challenges and limitations of your community-engaged research design.
  • Integrate the concept of cognitive justice in your research design to improve the quality and value of your scientific results.

Community-engaged science…?

In the first part of the workshop, Maastricht University sociologist Dr Mitchell Kiefer presented a case study showcasing the involvement of governmental stakeholders and citizens in an academic initiative that described itself as a community-engaged citizen science project.

Kiefer explained that he participated in the citizen science project in 2018 as a participant and observer, gave a detailed and critical reflection of his experience.

The Sea Level Solution Day project led by researchers at the Sea Levels Solution Center at Florida International University (FIU) aimed to involve citizens in using a simple device to collect data on a given day in a selected Miami area prone to king tide flooding. The assignment consisted in measuring the depth of flooding and the water salinity, taking photographs of observed floodings and giving a talk about the project to a public audience.

The FIU project initiators partnered up with several societal organisations such as city and county Offices of Resilience, other FIU departments (Biology; Environmental Science; Computer Science; GIS Center; Code for Miami; Journalism), and environmental groups. It also collaborated with the FIU student journalism initiative eyesontherise.org to communicate risks related sea level rise.

The project responded to an existing ecological problem affecting citizens in Miami, namely that of sudden "sunny day floodings" or higher-than-normal seasonal tides known as king tides. These tides are related to sea-level rise and represent threats to people, places, infrastructures and properties. They are expected to become more frequent in the future.

Another justification for the project was the need to make up for the lack of institutional authority and responsibility in Miami in addressing and managing climate-related problems.

The study yielded several scientific, policy and societal benefits.

  • From a scientific perspective, the researchers obtained localised and current data on flood risks related to king tides.
  • From a policy perspective, the study allowed to update local-level data and computer models regarding sea level rise. It also helped to establish more robust connections between the university and local governmental institutions.
  • From the societal perspective, the study allowed citizens to learn about the process of science, particularly when dealing with problems characterised by uncertainty. It also allowed them to develop an interest in science and future citizen science projects.

Kiefer summarised the project's goal as "making science part of pop culture."

Or rather a sophisticated science communication activity?

Kiefer outlined several limitations in the project's design.

  • The data collection event prioritised citizen engagement over scientific advancement.
  • The Sea Level Solution Day aimed primarily at creating a dialogue with the general public to communicate risks related to sea level rise and at providing information for policy decision-makers. The organisations involved in the project helped to generate exposure and interest for the data-collection event. The participants gave public lectures to increase outreach.
  • The citizen science participants were self-selected and over-represented by university students and concerned citizens already engaged in environmental actions. "Wouldn't it have been better to engage those not already engaged?" asked Dr Kiefer.
  • From a scientific point of view, the study had limited benefits. The overly basic technical equipment to collect the data lessened the scientific value, and even so, all the data had to be double-checked for reliability.

Reflecting on the case study presented by Dr. Kiefer, Professor of Technology & Society Wiebe Bijker wondered whether Dr. Kiefer's distinguishing citizen engagement from the scientific value of the project did not "turn the project rather into a sophisticated science communication campaign."

In Bijker’s view, the student and citizen participants served more as research assistants than as citizen scientists. His impression was that the project did not effectively engage the community living in the flood-risk area. This seemed further underlined by the fact that the data-collection events occurred in pre-decided locations on pre-selected days, rather than after asking for advice from people who live there.

A plea for cognitive justice

According to Bijker, a better community-engaged project design would have paid more attention to the knowledge and experience of the local communities and asked them about their prior experiential knowledge of seasonal floods: "What happened? Where exactly did it happen? What differences did you notice compared to two years ago? What do you remember of other floods, that happened even longer ago?"  

Bijker argued that tapping into the existing knowledge of the community, rather than sending out self-selected participants to pre-selected places, would have turned the project into a more effective community-engaged project.

He argued that rather than measuring impact, it would be more interesting to "better think about doing better science; and very often, doing better science means doing community-engaged science, and better evaluating how the process evolves, both in its knowledge production and in its societal impact."

For Bijker, doing community-engaged research goes beyond having a dialogue with the community. He pleaded for researchers to incorporate the concept of cognitive justice in their research design. "Take the knowledge of a community seriously, even if this knowledge is not considered scientific in terms of methodologies, diplomas, language, concepts, and data."

While not every research project needs to have a community-engaged design, it is worth including relevant communities with other forms of knowledge in the research design. This approach will improve the quality of the science produced and will have a higher societal impact.

Further readings:

Prof Wiebe Bijker’s valedictory lecture

An article by Shiv Visvanathan on cognitive justice

A TEDx talk by Shiv Visvanathan on cognitive justice


Photo: Rob Bixby via Flickr