The potentials and challenges of citizen science: 9 years of experience from post-Fukushima Japan

The Fukushima nuclear disaster took place nine years ago, but the current situation does not allow us to put it behind us completely. The site is producing up to 750 tons of contaminated water every day, pressuring the capacity of the holding tanks. The decommissioning of the plants is still ongoing and is expected to take decades to complete (New York Times March 10, 2020). The ongoing work at the plant means that there is a need to continuously monitor the potential release of radioactive materials into the environment. For more than nine years, citizens have been playing a significant role in such environmental monitoring.   

My book, Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists (Duke University Press, 2016) explored these citizen endeavors for measuring radiation contamination. There were two types of citizen monitoring that spread after the accident. There were citizen radiation measuring organizations (CRMOs) that measured the contamination levels of food. There were others that focused on ambient contamination, such as the Safecast, whose members used DIY Geiger counters to measure air contamination. Drawing on feminist STS (science and technology studies), the book analyzed how regular people turned to science in coping with the nuclear disaster.

As I found during my 12 months interviewing CRMOs and in follow-up interviews afterwards, CRMOs were established nationwide after the accident and they provided valuable data on food contamination to regular citizens, filling a critical knowledge gap. They tested the radioactivity levels of food samples, particularly during the immediate years after the accident when the government data was scant and the people’s concerns with contamination were acute.

The case of post-Fukushima citizen monitoring provides invaluable insights into the broader concept of “citizen science” now used globally and with increasingly popularity. I want to take a cue from anthropologist K. Weston’s concept of “technostruggle” in an environmentally degraded world and consider the potentials and challenges of citizen science as an important part of that technostruggle.  Weston suggests that technostruggle takes place when “ordinary people avail themselves of technology to produce knowledge about their visceral engagements with potentially lethal derivatives of the ‘resources’ upon which they rely” (Weston 2017, 21).

Citizen science is diverse in its practice, and even within the experience of radiation monitoring in post-Fukushima Japan, citizen scientists not only used different technologies and measured different things, but they also differed in their modes of operation and what they did with the obtained data. These practices indexed both public distrust in professional science — which is seen in Japan as under siege from the government-industry power structure — and shrinking public funding for science and environmental/health monitoring.

The experience of citizen radiation monitoring in Japan suggests important questions that are pertinent for other citizen science projects, and I will address these in the following discussion: In what ways does data collection by regular citizens emerge as a credible source of data and garner trust despite their lack of formal scientific credentials? To what degree does citizen science expand what counts as science? Is filling the knowledge gap the only benefit of citizen science?


Imagine you received a box of peaches from your uncle in the Northeastern region of Japan in 2012. You wanted to make sure that they were safe because you have small children. The municipal government did not have any testing sites open for citizens and the commercial laboratory testing cost a lot of money, which you cannot afford. This is where having a CRMO in your city would be helpful. You could go to a CRMO in your area and have the peaches measured for possible cesium contamination. If you didn’t have one in your city, you could mail in a sample and get the estimates of contamination levels by email/fax/phone. 

Profiles of people involved in CRMOs as well the structures of CRMOs were diverse. Some CRMOs were established by high school graduates while others were organized by people with advanced degrees. Some had a paid membership while others charged fees per sample, and some rented an office space while others operated from people’s homes.

CRMOs measured different food items, from vegetables to fish to processed foods. In addition, CRMOs tried to meet people’s needs in measuring other items. People wanted to measure dust in vacuum cleaners and dust in car A/C filters because the dust in the air might have been contaminated and concentrated in these filters. Some wanted to measure breast milk and urine. If citizens wanted to know if something was contaminated, CRMOs responded. The disaster created an immense desire for DIY measurement, as there was a paucity of data from official sources and the official data was often seen as not trustworthy, as I discuss in the next section.

Struggle over expertise and trust in citizens 

In my interviews, I heard over and over that people could trust CRMO data more than the government’s data. Given that the vast majority of the staff and organizers of the CRMOs were not trained in radiation measurement, it is intriguing to consider why their data garnered support and trust from many citizens.

And the puzzle is even more intriguing given that although some citizens acquired detectors that cost tens of thousands of dollars, advanced equipment does not guarantee “good measurement” of radiation.  Measuring radiation is not a simple matter. CRMOs use scintillation detectors, which can only give estimates, and these devices measure only limited kinds of nucleoids. Furthermore, detectors need to be calibrated to account for background radiation, they need to run for a sufficient time, and a certain amount of sample (about half a kilogram) is required. The complicated nature of radiation measurement would make it easy to dismiss citizen monitoring as unprofessional and untrustworthy.

Like many citizen-initiated science projects, CRMOs did face attacks from the government and professional experts for a perceived lack of proper training and skills in measuring radiation. Yet many people came to CRMOs for help in testing the items that they were personally concerned about. So what buttressed the trust in this form of citizen science?

I suggest that several factors shaped public opinion about the trustworthiness of CRMOs. First, the government was not prepared for the enormity of the nuclear accident and its widespread impacts. At the time of the accident, there were no preexisting official standards on allowable contamination, and the government scrambled to come up with what they called “provisional” standards, which set the limits for cesium concentration in foods. The government was slow in instructing farmers to watch for the nuclear fallout and instead insisted that food was safe. However, the deficiency in the government’s response was gradually exposed as media publicized discoveries of different foods that were contaminated. Perhaps most damning was the discovery in the summer of 2011 that highly contaminated beef had somehow been sold to the market, and was then used in school lunches.

Additionally, people distrusted the government’s communications about contamination. The Japanese government had been promoting nuclear energy as necessary for a resource-poor country since the 1950s. Since the beginning of the nuclear energy development in the 1960s, anti-nuclear activists and journalists had exposed cover-ups of smaller accidents and falsification of data by industry and scientists. After the Fukushima accident, distrust of the government became even more pronounced.

Scientific experts as well as government officials were suspected of emphasizing nuclear promotion rather than precaution. The term “nuclear village” refers to the close relationships among the nuclear related companies, the government, and scientific experts that promoted nuclear energy production. Many scientific experts were seen as a part of this village. For instance, after the accident, Yamashita Shunichi, a professor of medicine at Nagasaki University who was appointed as a radiation risk manager to Fukushima prefecture after the accident, proclaimed in March 2011 that “The effects of radiation do not come to people who are happy and laughing, they come to people who are weak-spirited.” Other experts also sided with the government position, and seemed to underplay the extent of contamination.  Although people who established CRMOs were laypeople without technical training and academic credentials, such lay-ness paradoxically increased legitimacy because of their distance from the government-industry-academia alliance.

This experience suggests how laypeople and non-experts may paradoxically gain credibility under the conditions of technostruggle. Skepticism about the collusion of scientific community and private industry actors is not limited to Japan. Increasing divestment from academic science by the public sector and shrinking public capacity for environmental and health monitoring are leaving many academics seeking private funding. Universities are also encouraging scientists’ partnership with the private sector. While governments and industry may celebrate public-private partnerships, these can jeopardize the public’s trust in science. In this milieu, participation by citizens in data collection was seen to increase the trustworthiness of data. “Citizens” came to stand in for the image of impartiality, neutrality, public interest, and civic-mindedness that might have characterized professionalized scientists before, but did not endure in the age of corporate-funded science.

Citizen science and its potentials

Regular people engaging in the work of citizen science during technostruggles produce much more than data. Critical literature has shown how citizen science can increase environmental and scientific knowledge of regular citizens. Citizen science is shown to increase content-knowledge as well as skills in communication (Stepenuck et al. 2011; Overdevest, Orr, and Stepenuck 2004; Stedman et al. 2009).

One important dimension of CRMOs was collective learning about environment and health matters.  Particularly in the immediate aftermath of the accident, many people did not know much about the measurement of radiation. Though people might have known about the negative effects of radiation on human health given Japan’s experience of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the accident raised many more specific questions in the minds of citizens: How do you measure radiation in different medium, such as air vs. food? What levels are considered safe in Japan and how do the Japanese standards compare with those of other countries? Which foods tend to get more contaminated?

The CRMOs also provided a social space where people could share concerns. In Japan, it has been difficult to difficult to talk about the accident and its potential health impacts due to the concept of fūhyōhigai (harmful rumors). Fūhyōhigai refers to the declines in sales of products from certain areas because of consumer belief that the products might be contaminated and they avoid purchasing them. The concept was useful to food producers because it helped them request a more financial compensation – for example, even when apples are not technically contaminated above the government standards, the sale of apples can decline due to consumer fear of contamination. Any expression of consumer concern with food contamination was treated as tantamount to fūhyōhigai, which the nuclear village alleged caused suffering and loss of economic vitality in the affected areas.

Japanese women tended to be the target of these accusations, because they do most of the food shopping and preparation in the home. This was facilitated by a long-standing stereotyping of women as emotional and weak on scientific issues. The term in the title of my book “radiation brain moms” is indicative of such policing of women. Women who were concerned with radiation were critiqued on social media as nō-mama (radiation brain moms). The term was a pun on hōshanō (radiation) and nō (brain), connoting mothers who were obsessed with radiation. In a sexist stereotype of maternal overreaction, mothers who raised concerns about radiation contamination were chastised as having a different kind of brain, one that was unscientific and unthinking.

My interviewees often talked about a relief in having CRMOs, which they felt were a safe space to talk about their concerns. When CRMOs had a physical location, these often functioned as a safe space for those people whose concerns were marginalized or even mocked as irrational overreaction. Some women said that they were worried about radiation contamination although their husbands and in-laws were not, which made it difficult to talk about the radiation-related issues within their own homes. One woman said, “I cannot do it [talk about radiation] elsewhere.”

Dilemmas facing citizen science

Weston suggests that technostruggles “can foster a politics of popular sovereignty when used to challenge government and corporate reassurances about safety. Alternatively, technostruggle can end up fostering other culturally resonant forms of political engagement, which in the case of Japan took the form of a politics of protection” (2017: 21). While it is important to understand the specific cultural context in Japan, my data suggested that the challenges that Japanese citizen scientists faced in challenging the government and corporations were not entirely uniquely Japanese. Below, I suggest two challenges facing citizen scientists that are rooted in broad political and social dynamics found in other global locations.

Scientization and the data treadmill

Environmental and health governance is science-based, which leads to the scientization of health and environmental controversies. Citizens who participate in technostruggle are pressured to frame their experiences of health and environmental harms in the language of risk assessment and management and in line with standardized measurements (Ottinger 2010). The difficulty and complexity of getting good measurements can drive citizen scientists into a “data treadmill” (Shapiro, Zakaria, and Roberts 2017). The policy and legal requirements for such specific ways of presenting concerns could exhaust citizens’ resources and energy.

In the case of radiation contamination in Fukushima, making radiation visible was extremely important to citizen scientists, as human senses cannot detect this form of contamination. But making it visible is not as straightforward as one might imagine. With the most commonly used detector, the estimates can be ambiguous. Moreover, detectors can have a range of minimum detectable levels. Many CRMOs tried very hard to lower their minimum detectable levels, for instance, by measuring samples for longer times and by packing samples more densely.

Citizen monitoring is not a hobby when done as part of a fight for livelihood and safety. But there is a lot of other work—paid and unpaid work—that piles on the shoulders of regular people. In the context of neoliberal reduction of social safety net and precarity of paid work, time and energy for participation in volunteer work such as citizen science is increasingly hard to come by. Thus, the quest for more and more standardizable data is necessitated by politico-regulatory structures, but it may restrict the potential of citizen science. 

Self-monitoring under neoliberalism

Self-monitoring by citizens also raises questions about the scales and the locus of responsibility. At which level do we measure? Who is responsible for measuring? Citizens’ measurements can provide much more fine-grained data than might be possible in government data. At the same time, citizen science might inadvertently reinforce the shift in responsibility in environmental monitoring to individuals, effectively accelerating the retreat of the government in environmental protection and monitoring. As Kinchy and Perry (2012) have observed, citizen scientists might end up picking up the slack left by the neoliberal deregulation.

Indeed, in Japan, government and industry are moving towards individualized self-monitoring. The government has distributed many individualized dosimeters to residents in Fukushima, arguing that personal devices enable people to lower their individual exposures, even if they live in a contaminated area. By shifting the scale of measurement to the individual body, the government contends that it is possible for people to avoid exposures and remain safe. While this may allow people to stay in their homes in affected areas instead of evacuating permanently, it also allows the government and the nuclear industry to pass off responsibility for nuclear cleanup and for the safety of the population.

Simultaneously, the government has tried to scale back its public monitoring in the last few years. After the nuclear accident, the government installed many air dosimeters from Fukushima that would alert the citizens in real time after the accident . The dosimeters were placed in public spaces such as transportation hubs, parks, and public schools. But in 2018, the government announced that it would start to remove them (since then, there has been a citizen opposition to such reduction in public monitoring posts).

It is important to recognize that the government’s motivations for personalizing radiation management came from various directions, not from citizens’ desires for information alone. The costs associated with recovery from the Fukushima accident played a major part in the transition to individual management of radiation exposures. Prior to the accident, the government used the standard of 1 mSv/year at the district level as the measure of safety. But this level of decontamination ultimately proved too costly for district governments. Additionally, the cost of supporting evacuees was putting pressure on the national budget. From the perspective of local governments in Fukushima, depopulation was a huge problem, eroding their tax bases and the sense of community among remaining residents. In these ways, the government’s political and economic calculations also shape the push for self-monitoring and radiation self-management, and the idea of self-monitoring by citizens has been paradoxically absorbed into the pro-nuclear structure.

Responding to individuals and the varying needs of individuals is important for citizen science projects, but it is also crucial to consider how it reinforces reductive scientization and how this emphasis might be moving the scale at which the problem is conceived. As Michelle Murphy (2012) has noted in the case of DIY movement by women’s health activists in the US who did self-gynecological examination and menstrual extraction, “seizing the means of reproduction” had shifting and complex relationship with the broader political and social structure. In a similar way, the political implications of “seizing the means of perception,” to borrow the phrase by Weston (who borrowed from Murphy), are complex.

Citizen scientists therefore need to consider the balance between the benefits of fine-grained and individuated data vs. more aggregated data, and be reflexive about the growing policy pressure for scientization of social controversies and of the individualization of contamination monitoring and management. For instance, some CRMOs have opposed the Japanese government’s policy on radiation protection and demanded the continuation and expansion of publicly funded monitoring. Some have been part of the legal challenges to make TEPCO and the government accountable for the accident and its disaster responses. They see radiation measurement as a part of the broader struggle for environmental justice.  

Concluding thoughts

These issues that I encountered in my research in Japan pushed me to consider citizen science not only as a disaster response to fill acute knowledge gaps, but also the social contexts of citizen science and their potentials. I started to work with Abby Kinchy, whose research is on citizen science projects in Mexico and the US, to explore more cases of citizen science beyond nuclear accidents. In our latest book (Kimura and Kinchy 2018), we consider the diversity of citizen science practices and explore how they relate to specific socio-political contexts.

The book analyzes some of the themes that I identified above in non-Japanese contexts, including the dilemmas of scientization and the difficulties of choosing scales at which citizen scientists conceptualize their work. The book focuses more on the shared themes across cases in an effort to think about emancipatory potentials of citizen science in general. But heterogeneity among citizen science projects would also be interesting to examine. The diverse and shifting conceptualizations of “citizen,” “science,” “politics,” and  “experts” constitute a core appeal of citizen science and make a fertile ground for anthropologists and other social scientists to analyze how different socio-cultural and politico-economic contexts shape potentials and opportunities for citizen science. How do different ideas of “citizen” shape what citizens can do with the data they obtain? In the context of Japan, CRMOs used the term “citizen” (市民:shimin)  rather than related terms such as “nationals” (国民:kokumin), “the people” (大衆:taishū) or “the people(人民:jinmin).  But what would it mean to be a “citizen” scientist in China would be very different from its meaning in the Netherlands, given different political histories and institutions. And this kind of analysis would be most fruitful if the specific cultural contexts are not seen as monolithic and static but the attention is given to shifting discourses with diverse interpretations and experiences within a community.

Citizen science projects will no doubt increase in different societies. Nuanced and historically situated understandings of how they work will be critical in expanding our understanding of the potential of citizen science in the technostruggles of our environmentally precarious worlds.

Works Cited

Kinchy, Abby J, and Simona L Perry. 2012. “Can Volunteers Pick up the Slack? Efforts to Remedy Knowledge Gaps about the Watershed Impacts of Marcellus Shale Gas Development.” Duke Environmental Law and Policy Journal 22 (2): 303–339.

Murphy, Michelle. 2012. Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ottinger, Gwen. 2010. “Buckets of Resistance: Standards and the Effectiveness of Citizen Science.” Science, Technology & Human Values 35 (2): 244–270.

Overdevest, Christine, Cailin Huyck Orr, and Kristine Stepenuck. 2004. “Volunteer Stream Monitoring and Local Participation in Natural Resource Issues.” Research in Human Ecology 11 (2): 177–185.

Shapiro, Nicholas, Nasser Zakaria, and Jody A. Roberts. 2017. “A Wary Alliance: From Enumerating the Environment to Inviting Apprehension.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 3: 575–602.

Stedman, Richard, Brian Lee, Kathryn Brasier, Jason L. Weigle, and Francis Higdon. 2009. “Cleaning Up Water? Or Building Rural Community? Community Watershed Organizations in Pennsylvania*.” Rural Sociology 74 (2): 178–200.

Stepenuck, Kristine F., Lois G. Wolfson, Barbara W. Liukkonen, Jerome M. Iles, and Timothy S. Grant. 2011. “Volunteer Monitoring of E. Coli in Streams of the Upper Midwestern United States: A Comparison of Methods.” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment; Dordrecht 174 (1–4): 625–33.

Weston, Kath. 2017. Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World. Durham: Duke University Press.

Aya H. Kimura is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa. Her books include Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima (Duke University Press 2016: recipient of the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society for Social Studies of Science), Hidden Hunger: Gender and Politics of Smarter Foods (Cornell University Press 2013: recipient of the Outstanding Scholarly Award from the Rural Sociological Society), and Food and Power: Visioning Food Democracy in Hawai‘i (University of Hawaii Press, coeditor). Her new book is Science by the People: Participation, Power, and the Politics of Environmental Knowledge (2019, Rutgers University Press, co-authored with Abby Kinchy).