Citizen Science: the simple participating in complex matters of scientific research to better their health.
For each one of us, there is a page in history and a valuable window in the past, which holds critical evidence to make a convincing case in a present situation. Just as lawyers analyze tons of materials to derive a critical piece of evidence in solving a legal case, health policy makers turn to published scientific evidence to guide health strategies of public health importance. Health scientific evidence is largely generated by scientists in academia, researchers and innovators.
From my early days of scientific research, a supervisor or lead researcher would push you to ‘pull up your socks’ and publish your research findings in an internationally reputed journal. The aim would be, to create a public record of original contributions to knowledge and to encourage scientists to “speak” directly to one another. He or she would taunt you saying, ‘If you are unpublished, you do not exist! You must get on the hall of fame! Hall of fame meant the likes of the American Journal or Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, or British Medical Journal or similar. If the journal is a prominent one, publication endows the author with an extra measure of prestige. I spent sleepless nights working hard to get on the hall of fame. Thanks to my mentors, I finally did, not once and not twice. However, a question remained deep seated in me; ‘so what?’. I had gained experience and expertise in packaging scientific data in a palatable format for other scientists to appreciate, but I was left wondering how my published work would influence positive change and development in my own environment?
It is until I joined the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI), Makerere University, whose resume is rich with 750 international publications), that I learnt about scientific research assimilation in non-scientific and non-researching audiences. Welcome to Citizen Science – a new field of scientific research, where science is made responsive to community concerns and needs by engaging the public in research. It was my very first time to see ordinary citizens of Uganda actively engaged by professional scientists to achieve a common goal. For example, much as IDI operates sophisticated centers of excellence in managing complicated HIV/AIDS amongst discordant couples, babies, adolescents and ageing persons, they engage museum curators and archivists, painters, graphic artists to bridge science and communities.
Recently, IDI through the Ugandan Academy showcased ‘The History of HIV’ through an exhibition at the Uganda Museum, which allowed citizens to engage in discussions about what HIV meant to them as individuals. The hope was that perceptions around HIV programming today would be recorded to assist in creating more deliberate programming to prevent the spread of the virus.
In Busukuma Division, Wakiso district, The Academy again, in a multi-disciplinary study that involved the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development oversaw a study on ageing and its effect on self-perception and cognition. Such meaningful engagements, where complex research is scaled down to communities in a simple format, and married to the actual needs of a particular community or group, completes the equation. The ‘so what?’ after publishing research is answered through citizen science.