Wicked problems

Citizen Science

When I first heard the phrase ‘wicked problems’ I thought it was a bit naff. However, now that I understand what it means I’ve come to use it a lot. As someone with a science background – my first degree is in chemistry – I’m used to seeing problems as having solutions. For example, if the problem is a hole in the ozone layer then reducing the use of particular chemicals should sort it out. And in essence that’s what we did although it’s going to take another 50 years or so to get ozone levels back to the pre-1980s concentrations.

But what about climate change? There’s no simple solution – in fact there isn’t a complex solution. The problem needs to be addressed by experts in a whole range of disciplines including the sciences and the social sciences. And, as we find out more about climate change, our understanding of the problem changes, too.

The website Wicked problems suggests that the reason they are difficult or impossible to solve can be fourfold: ‘incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems’. So, all we can do is to mitigate against the problems rather than solve them. As well as climate change you could add poverty, sustainability, food security and biodiversity loss.

Education helps – if we want people to adopt strategies to address the problem of sustainability then they need a good evidence base of what the issues are, what contexts they’re working in, what resources they have, what’s been tried before, what might give them a quick win and so on. Between us we know a lot and sharing that information through education should speed up the process of mitigation. You only have to look at how ignorance stops people from taking action about climate change to see how important education is. But, so far, education for sustainable development or education for sustainability hasn’t had as much impact as its proponents hoped for because education only goes so far.

What can the public do to promote sustainability locally, regionally and globally? Well, we know that there are examples of people working together to address local problems whether they be water pollution, aircraft noise or food waste. So, if we can find ways for local people, supported by experts in a range of disciplines, to work together on addressing their sustainability challenges then we might make some progress. And this is where we can learn from the citizen science movement.

Citizen science involves people collecting data and contributing to our scientific knowledge base. That process may involve the public counting species of birds, monitoring water quality or monitoring when plants flower. However, in my view, this is not much better than crowd-sourcing data and does not deserve to be called ‘science’. What we need is scientists and engineers prepared to work with the public, listening to their questions, helping them to design research and involving them in carrying out real research that helps them to mitigate the wicked problem of sustainability. Citizen Science 2.0 perhaps?

Justin Dillon

University of Bristol