Citizen Science: Campfires and Science

For our ‘Opening Science’ series, Jack Nunn answers questions about his Citizen Science project, Campfires and Science. Jack is a researcher in the Public Health Department in the Centre for Health Communication and Participation at La Trobe University. He has recently worked on projects with Cochrane Australia, the World Health Organisation, the Australian Department of Health, and the UK National Institute of Health Research. He is currently a PhD candidate exploring ways of involving people in genomics research, and is an Editorial Board Member of the Wikijournal of Science, and Research Involvement and Engagement.
Contact: @jacknunnJack.Nunn@latrobe.edu.au, jacknunn.comORCID ID.
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What is ‘Campfires and Science’?

‘Campfires and Science’ is a new and growing community of people who head outdoors, light a campfire, and share knowledge. We lead regular trips into the wilderness to support scientific research and provide hands-on learning about how to do research. Anyone can contribute to science, whatever your age or experience. Observation and data collection is the core of the scientific method. Some of the simple research we do is survey work, looking at what is there. This work can have an amazing impact — protecting threatened habitats and unique biodiversity, ensuring it remains with us for generations to come.

We’ve had speakers talk about a range of subjects, from cosmology to the structure of proteins, although we usually have an expert speak about research they have done in the forest. After a free meal, we lead walks out into the forest with experts from organizations which have specialist equipment, such as thermal imaging cameras. We often spot critically endangered animals and share this data with the government so they know which areas not to log and burn. We’re branching out into other areas now, have started our first of many scientific quadrats, are planning to use drones to carry out aerial mapping and are planning ‘Sealife and Science’ events this summer.

One year after our first campfire gathering, we have reached around 700 members in our Facebook group and have brought over 100 people together at over ten events. We’re only just getting started!

What was the thinking behind ‘Campfires and Science?’

Science means knowledge. We share and, in some cases, generate new knowledge by asking questions, gathering data, and trying to understand it.

At the core of what I hope to achieve is to help people learn ways of asking questions. Anything can be questioned. I want to help more people realize that anyone can ask any question and help answer these questions by gathering many kinds of data. For example, smartphones offer an affordable and accessible way to gather and collect all kinds of data, such as geo-tagged images. Nearly half the population of the planet Earth has access to a smartphone. The new kinds of science that can be explored with that technology needs to be supported more, and governments are starting to acknowledge this in policy.

One could argue that knowledge is perceived as something given to you for you to learn, usually in a static form — from a book or from a teacher following a rigorous syllabus. From my perspective, this has created a dangerous culture where people unconsciously see knowledge as fixed or, at the very least, as something created by others. Challenging this is not a new idea – Niels Bohr said ‘every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question’. The internet and websites like Wikipedia have challenged that mindset and demonstrated that knowledge can be updated and expanded, all in a completely decentralized and not-for-profit model. This is a powerful demonstration of an amazing ideal; the sum of humankind’s knowledge for free, for everyone, anywhere.

‘Campfires and Science’ was my attempt to create inclusive science that fuses these conceptual worlds and helps people understand how they can create new knowledge themselves.

Moving to Australia increased my awareness of the richness of the indigenous culture here – different kinds of knowledge that can’t always be captured. For millennia around the world, science was shared around campfires, often in the form of ‘stories’. Having a degree in English Literature helps me value the power and importance of storytelling. They say, science is a branch of philosophy, but truly, philosophy is merely a branch of language. Everything is understood through language, be it words, code or maths – and more often than not, we have to understand it using stories. ‘Campfires and Science’ was my attempt to create inclusive science that fuses these conceptual worlds and helps people understand how they can create new knowledge themselves. My dream is to help people realize how they can become an ‘expert’ and, where possible, reclaim ‘science’ from being seen as exclusive.

What started it?

A previous blog in this series talked in great detail about the power of getting people to capture environmental data. Air and water pollution are not problems that stop at legal borders or specific government departments — and there is not always an economic incentive to research these issues at a national or international level.

The best book I read last year was ‘The Handbook of Ignorance Studies’ about the study of culturally induced ignorance — agnotology. Deciding what does not get researched is as powerful a political move as deciding what does and there are many real or perceived conflicts of interest in these decisions. If something has not been researched, you can say ‘there’s no evidence’ — but that can mean ‘we need more data’ which is different from saying ‘we have enough data to say there is no evidence’. The classic example of this is tobacco research but as a species we are spoiled for choice. Reminding people that there are many kinds of useful research they can do without needing to wait for someone to pay for it is a very effective way of sharing the power of knowledge in a distributed way.

My previous professional experience of working with the public and health charities to build partnerships with researchers led me to see the parallels between the principles of ‘public involvement’ in health research and how this is transferable to all kinds of research. This crystallized for me when, after moving to Australia, I visited a friend in Borneo who was working for the Borneo Research Foundation at a research station studying primates such as gibbons and orangutans — the biggest threat to these species being humans. I captured my ideas of how to involve the public in this kind of research in a report but didn’t do anything with it until I learned of the extensive logging which was taking place less than two hours from where I live in Melbourne.

I learned about how the State government of Victoria owned a company that was logging trees in a way which some experts have described as illegal, destroying the habitat of critically endangered animals, increasing the risk of deadly fires in the future and causing massive air pollution when burning the forest and soil after logging it (which is not a fire-risk reduction method, just the cheapest way of re-seeding the land for future plantations).

I met some experts who were volunteering their time to go into the forest to gather data. They were spotting critically endangered nocturnal animals with thermal imaging cameras, sleeping in their cars, and giving the data to the government to provide evidence that logging in that area should stop. Crucially, this was research that the government was already gathering but the self-described citizen scientists decided to gather their own data as there was perceived conflict of interest among some people that the government had a perverse incentive to not do this science, as that would having to stop logging, which has economic and political consequences. 

‘Campfires and Science’ was my attempt to make this data gathering more accessible and inclusive, and to improve the dissemination and translation of this knowledge by making more people aware of what was happening. My professional experience in creating Open Access learning resources for organizations like Cochrane which help the public understand the importance of evidence has given me a good foundation. Similarly, much of my PhD is learning about how to involve people, so this was a good opportunity to move from theory to practice and gain some real-world experience to help inform my own PhD.

What’s next? 

We’re thrilled to be working with the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage to explore how to set up similar communities around Sydney. We are also planning to set up an international not-for-profit organization to support everyone in the world to get involved in creating, sharing and using knowledge, so we can move beyond the ‘Campfires and Science’ format.

If you’re interested in learning more, supporting this work or would like to learn how you can set up your own ‘Campfires and Science’, please feel free to get in touch.


Jack Nunn wishes to highlight that at the time of writing, the ‘Campfires and Science’ project is carried out in his spare time with other volunteers and currently receives no funding or in-kind donations. It has no official affiliation with his work with La Trobe University or the Cochrane Collaboration. Opinions in this blog post are that of the author and not necessarily that of Hindawi. The text is by Jack Nunn, the campfire photo was taken by Steve Herbst, and both are distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.