Dr Erin Roger is a Sector Lead at Atlas of Living Australia, former Chair of the Australian Citizen Science Association and a longstanding judge for the Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science — now in its ninth year. We caught up with her to look inside the judging process, discuss why you should consider entering and reflect on the evolution of citizen science.

Dr Erin Roger — Sector Lead at Atlas of Living Australia

Dr Erin Roger is a Sector Lead at Atlas of Living Australia, former Chair of the Australian Citizen Science Association and a longstanding judge for the Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.

Image: Supplied
© Dr Erin Roger

Each application is reviewed multiple times

I begin by giving each application a skim, to see what sort of projects have entered and look for any I haven’t heard of. Then I read each one thoroughly, giving an initial score and writing notes, which together serve as the basis for discussion with the other judges. If the project has an app, for example, I’ll download it to check out functionality and activity levels. Before submitting my initial assessments, I revisit the applications one last time to make sure I’m happy, then establish my top three entries and the reasoning behind my selection.

Clarity in writing is key

Judges read a lot of applications! When there are so many materials to review, we don’t want to keep re-reading something to understand what an entrant or nominator is saying. Formatting makes a difference in terms of ease of reading and communicating your response to each criterion — for example bolding important words, using bullet points and inserting headings. Figures, diagrams and pictures also help provide a clearer picture of a project.

Make sure you demonstrate the impact

It’s not enough to just describe the impact — make sure you demonstrate precisely how the project has direct benefits for participants and adds value on a larger scale. I like to understand things such as how many people have participated, how users have engaged and what scientific contributions it has made. Some applicants use their own perspective, or their organisation’s, to frame the project, but what judges are really interested in is the community-level impact.

Department of Industry, Science and Resources Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science finalist, Fungimap Inc., Murraylands and Riverland Landscape Board; Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria; and University of Adelaide

Fungimap Inc.'s Australia-wide network of citizen scientists, supported by ecologists and mycologists, have observed and mapped thousands of macrofungi species, uncovered endangered species, and increased understanding of why fungi are irreplaceable for our ecosystems. The team was one of three finalists in the 2022 Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.

Image: Supplied
© Supplied

Articulate the benefit to citizen scientists

Not demonstrating the benefit to citizen scientists is the single biggest thing that lets an application down. It’s important for judges to see that project coordinators have thought about how to properly acknowledge — and learn from — participants, and engage in the two-way flow of information that citizen science facilitates. I’m interested in hearing from users, in terms of both how the project has enriched them and how they have contributed. That's why testimonials are so important!

Not demonstrating the benefit to citizen scientists is the single biggest thing that lets an application down.

Start your application early

Starting on your application early not only gives you time to review and refine materials but ensures you don’t miss a chance to improve them. For example, if you realise additional information is required to demonstrate how the project meets a certain criterion, it may be possible to quickly survey some users to better understand their experiences and contributions, then build this into your application.

The writing process helps you reflect

Application writing gives you the opportunity to take a step back and focus on communicating the goals and impacts of a project, an exercise that can have significant value beyond the submission itself. This perspective — and the application — can also come in handy when you’re applying for other grants or awards.

2023 Eureka Prizes Award Ceremony - winners

The 1 Million Turtle team accepts the 2023 Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science from Dr Cathy Foley AO PSM. The community conservation program uses the TurtleSAT app to involve citizen scientists in hands-on activities such as habitat construction and restoration, nest protection and fox management.

Image: Mel Koutchavlis
© Australian Museum

Judges don’t agree on one winner from the outset

There are typically five to six applications that each judge scores highly, so we start by discussing all entries and justifying our scores. Often, another judge points out something the rest of us have overlooked or not considered, which helps the panel reach a consensus. The process requires compromise, but I’ll always advocate for at least one of my top three applications to be selected as a finalist. Every judge takes their role and the panel’s decision very seriously. It’s great to be involved in these deliberations.

Selection can raise your profile

Being selected as a finalist or winner can really raise the profile of a project and the organisation delivering it. For example, when I was Chair of the Australian Citizen Science Association, we were frequently contacted by people seeking speakers for events or examples of great projects, and we’d always point them toward these projects. Eureka Prize finalists also made up three of the four projects featured on Australia Post’s special citizen science issue. Who wouldn’t want to win an “Oscar of Australian science”!

… but if you’re not selected, keep trying

I think it’s important to reapply if your project has evolved since last submitting, and you’re able to demonstrate how. Additional functionality or increases in participant numbers are just some factors that can help strengthen your application. It’s also important to note that some years, very little separates finalists from those projects not selected. On these occasions, I wish I could reach out to an applicant and say “You were so close … if you had just done this!”. So, I guess my main message is to keep trying!

Silhouette of diver taken underwater

By harnessing the power of citizen scientists, Virtual Reef Diver seeks to dramatically increase the amount of environmental monitoring data for the Great Barrier Reef. Crowd-sourced images are uploaded, geo-located and analysed online, providing valuable scientific information that reef managers can use to make better decisions at a scale not previously achieved.

Image: Queensland University of Technology
© Queensland University of Technology

The prize has elevated citizen science

There was a paper[1] published a few years ago, which showed that Australia ranked third globally in the production of citizen science scientific journal articles. We’re placed only behind the United Kingdom and United States, both of which have much larger populations, so this is a true testament to Australia. I think the prize has had a real hand in helping to elevate citizen science and its perceived importance among the scientific community.

Citizen science represents the opportunity for a paradigm shift

Widespread uptake of citizen science can fundamentally shift how we engage communities in scientific research. Crucial to enabling this is investment in the provision of infrastructure, resources and tools to allow for the up scaling of good quality data and information across temporal and spatial scales. Through citizen science we can tap into open innovation and mass collaboration to address some of the huge social, scientific and policy challenges facing us globally. It is great to see that global organisations are now thinking about the application of citizen science towards addressing present-day challenges. Citizen science at national and global scales represents the opportunity for a paradigm shift in our ability to inform, enrich and engage with our diverse communities.

Widespread uptake of citizen science can fundamentally shift how we engage communities in scientific research.

Being a judge is a privilege

Being a judge is a real a privilege. I feel lucky to have this insight into citizen science in Australia and be able to review some of the excellent projects that have been developed in this growing field. It’s been a pleasure meeting the other judges — we all come from very different backgrounds, and everyone has such interesting views and perspectives. Also, it is nice to know the confidential result of something in advance. That doesn’t happen to me very often!

[1] Pelacho, M., Ruiz, G., Sanz, F. et al. Analysis of the evolution and collaboration networks of citizen science scientific publications. Scientometrics 126, 225–257 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-020-03724-x

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.