Scripta Varia

Towards a 21st Century Open and Integrated Natural History Museum

Maike Weißpflug and Johannes C. Vogel[*]


In order to foster a democratic knowledge society, which is able to address the enormous challenges humanity faces, the relationship between science, society, business, and policy needs to be re-configured and reinvented. Democracy is underpinned by science and technology and a more scientifically literate citizenry needs to be fostered to engage in democratic processes and decision making. In order to achieve this, science urgently needs to become more self-reflective and shift substantial resources towards deep public engagement, open science and citizen science.

As they are highly loved and trusted, public facing, excellent science organisations, zoos, botanical gardens and natural history museums need to exercise national and international leadership, act as change agents and pace-makers for open science, society, business and policy. They need to initiate and engage in a constructive dialogue between science and society for the sake of nature and a sustainable future for humans on this planet.

In this article, we explore the rationale for these necessary and long-overdue developments that science needs to undertake.


At first glance, the fact that science is a public matter is taken for granted. Science is public and, even more so, unthinkable without publicity! When we recently discussed at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin whether a new field of research should be called ‘Open Science’ or ‘Public Science’, some participants shook their heads: Science had always been public, and perhaps the concept of ‘Open Science’ was new at most in the sense of ‘Citizen Science’.

Although a discussion about the public sphere of science sounds plausible, it needs further clarification and differentiation. In the age of digital transformation and an increasing politicization of science, for example around the climate debate, terminology is slipping. It therefore seems to be exactly the right moment to discuss the relationship between science and the public anew.

Our contribution consists of two larger parts. The first part (Sections I to III) deals theoretically with the various relationships between science and the public sphere. In the second part (sections IV to VI) we look at the role of museums as places of ‘public’ and, particularly important to us, open science. In order to examine the importance of the ‘public’ for science, we first discuss its two dimensions: public communication (or publishing as an inner-scientific principle) and the opportunities or even social right to participate in science. Both dimensions can be distinguished analytically, but they enter into a new, closer relationship, especially in the context of the debate about an ‘open science world’.

We then take a closer look at the debate about open science and show how the principle of inner-scientific communication is expanded and ultimately transformed therein. The relationship between science and the public will be redefined, since science, in view of the great challenges in many (but not all) areas, will again be more strongly oriented towards societal needs. In addition, scientific practices are increasingly being taken up beyond the narrow boundaries of scientific communities, as we show with the example of Citizen Science.

Against this background, we call for embracing the new possibilities of open science. Using natural history museums as examples, we present museums as new places where science and society can meet and discuss the associated practices. Using these examples, we want to show ways in which science can radically open up and transform itself in order to fulfil its role, namely to be a pace-maker and convener for rational truth-finding and a place of co-production of knowledge for a sustainable world and future for humans. For we need a new science that understands itself more strongly as part of social problem-solving processes.

Mission-driven research can, but does not necessarily, contradict the freedom of science. Especially since the threat to freedom today also comes from another side: rational modernity is in the midst of its greatest crisis since the totalitarian catastrophe in the 20th century. By destroying biodiversity, by being at the root of global warming and massive interventions in the Earth’s systems, rational modernity also threatens to destroy its own livelihood. If self-preservation is the cornerstone of rational action, we are well on the way to becoming an irrational civilization. Yet it is not too late to take alternative paths – a science that opens itself further to society and has a strong resonance with the public could be part of the solution.

Public communication as a scientific principle

The public, i.e. the accessibility and verifiability of research results, is a prerequisite for a functioning science system. Historically, it was only with modern means of communication, above all the printing press, that the possibility of a cross-location, public and systematic exchange of ideas arose. This made the emergence of modern science possible in the first place. Scientists can thus exchange, question, expand or reject knowledge together. The scientific publication system ensures that knowledge can be tested and recorded, and that it is disseminated and archived. Without this process, without the public communication of research, the immense expansion of scientific knowledge and the immense progress in knowledge would be inconceivable. The fact that scientists communicate publicly guarantees the transparency of the truth-finding processes and, in principle, allows everyone to understand and verify the results once they have been published.

At present, the process of scientific publication generally takes place in a multi-stage process in which publication is preceded by internal quality assurance by experts in the field. In many – albeit still not all – scientific disciplines, the peer-review procedure is regarded as the gold standard for quality assurance. However, this measure alone is increasingly regarded as no longer sufficient for assessing the quality of research. The empirical sciences in particular are experiencing a reproducibility crisis. Increasingly, there is a demand for a stronger opening of the scientific process as a guarantee for the verifiability and traceability of scientific results, for example through the publication of research data as Open Data and the introduction of new standards such as FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, re-usable) Data. The debate on Open Science and the expectations of an opening of scientific communication processes will be discussed in more detail later.

First, we turn to the second meaning of the public for science: publishing is not only a functional element in the science system that supports the process of truth-finding, it is also an irreplaceable guarantee for the freedom of science. The right to think, say and publish everything in the name of truth is the indispensable foundation of all free scientific work. Those who claim the freedom of science should not ignore this argument. The internal entanglement of the public sphere and freedom calls for insistence not only on the right of scientists to self-determination (such as the right to decide on the place of publication), but also on their duty to publish publicly. It is at this point – and the controversial question of how comprehensive the addressed public should be – that the debate on Open Access and Open Science begins.

The right to participate in science

From the outset, modern science was dependent on the response of a broader public and often knew how to make wise use of this public. Spectacular public experiments, such as the invention of the balloon flight and the associated studies on the weather and the structure of the atmosphere, combine the rise of modern science with the emergence of a bourgeois public that took part in the events and defined itself through this practice of public participation.

The right to participate in science found its way into the treaties on the formulation of human rights at an early stage: In the UN Social Covenant, one of the first international human rights conventions binding under international law and, alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the core of the UN Human Rights Code, participation “in the achievements of scientific progress and its application” (UN Social Covenant, Article 15, Paragraph 1 (b)) is prominently formulated.

Today we take the right to knowledge for granted. It not only includes the right to education, but is also increasingly understood as a comprehensive right to free access to knowledge resources and as the right to participate in the production of social knowledge. Examples such as the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia show that this is not only a noble wish, but that this desire is already acted upon and has become a life practice, albeit not yet comprehensively enforced.

The right to public participation in science is also supported by a democratic argument: In the democratic knowledge society, citizens must be able to inform themselves freely about the state and problems of society. In addition to free access to the media, this also includes access to scientific results. The task of the public and its institutions is to structure this access in such a way that it is possible for everyone without considerable restrictions (e.g. prohibitive fees). The most recent examples from the climate debate show how civil society actors refer to scientific findings to an unprecedented degree. New developments can also be witnessed: the “Fridays for Future” movement is not only drawing heavily on scientific findings from climate research, it also calls on policy-makers to make these findings the basis for climate policy decisions.

The video “The Destruction of the CDU” by the German YouTuber and artist Rezo,[2] addressing the insufficient climate policy of the federal government, is a similar novelty: The video is a political commentary containing innumerable scientific evidence. The fact that civil society involvement – which is also supported by new actors, schoolchildren and social media activists – is approaching science to such an extent and is even using scientific techniques can be seen as a new manifestation of the public character of science.

Open Science

In the present, we see a shift from the traditional public sphere of science – in its two discussed dimensions – to the demand for open science. The idea of open, i.e. free and public access to scientific publications has been around since the early 2000s. In 2001, the then young Public Library of Science (PLoS) called on all scientists and scholars to publish only in Open Access journals and to review only for them. The “Berlin Declaration” of 2003[3] went one step further and described scientific literature as a cultural heritage and “comprehensive source of human knowledge” to which everyone should have free access.

This can be understood as a normative setting derived from the right to participate in science, but also as a functional argument for reach of scientific knowledge: In the digital and global scientific landscape, granting every member of the scientific community unrestricted access in the competition to find the truth can only be achieved by free and unrestricted access via digital media.

This argument alone would be sufficient to justify Open Access. Following this rationale, the broader public is not the direct addressee, but a direct beneficiary of opening up science in the digital age. However, we should go even further and consider the participatory processes of knowledge generation, which no longer rely solely on scientific peers as actors. Since inter- and transdisciplinary research has long been widely established, the circle of those who should be granted access to the cycles of knowledge is widening. Researchers from other disciplines, actors from civil society, politics, business and ordinary citizens depend on independent access to scientific literature and data to participate in such projects.

The distinction between internal and external scientific communication, which has always been determined by mutual permeability, is thus becoming increasingly blurred. Today, internal scientific communication is less and less limited to one’s own scientific peer group, but is increasingly understood inter- and transdisciplinarily. This also has to do with the increase in complexity and the high degree of specialisation of research as well as with a growing awareness that the results of one’s own research can also be scientifically interesting for other target groups – for example for a colleague from history or for a transdisciplinary project on urban development. On the other hand, external science communication is often no longer understood solely as the unidirectional communication of scientific results. It seems increasingly sensible to make access to internal scientific communication radically more open, i.e. to make the borders of the scholarly republic, which have long since ceased to coincide with the borders of the disciplines, permeable.

This utopian image of a global knowledge society based on a free flow of knowledge, formulated in the early days of the Internet, is to be understood more as a regulative idea than as a completely attainable goal. Even if science itself requires the principle of public communication, i.e. science cannot do without the public sphere, it is still connected to society in a heteronomous way: Science always remains embedded in social developments, it is in constant mutual exchange with society and is dependent on it in many ways. Above all, risky research (e.g. nuclear research or genetic research) depends on social legitimacy. This tension between society and science seems to intensify regularly in times of political crisis.

An alert observer of such a conflict was the sociologist Robert Merton, who is often referenced today to describe the ideal of an open science. His four buzzwords on science – universalism, communism, unselfishness and organized skepticism – from the text “The Normative Structure of Science” (1942) have found their way into the discourse on Open Science today.[4] It is exciting to take another look at the text in its entirety.

Merton’s starting point is the political attacks on science in the USA in the early 1940s. In the 1930s and 1940s, hostility to science arose in the context of the Second World War. The defining example and frightening picture was the National Socialist banishment of all non-Aryan scientists from Germany and the racial ideological transformation of German science. However, many sentences also apply to today: The attacks on science had shown scientists how dependent they were on a certain social structure. The manifestos and position papers of the time speak for the need of science to reassure itself. Nonetheless, Merton adds, “crisis invites self-appraisal” (p. 287).

A similar self-assurance can be seen today in the “March for Science” movement. First and foremost, it defends science against populist attacks on factual truths such as the denial of climate change. However, the demonstrations frequently conveyed the reductionist image that science itself produces facts and truths, in other words, that science resembles something like the guarantor of truth. This self-presentation is increasingly insufficient in a world in which scientific knowledge, e.g. about global warming and the extinction of species, is gaining ever-greater social significance. It is not enough to insist on the inviolability of science to deal with these problems. What is needed – and this was certainly discussed in the “March for Science” movement – is the assumption of social responsibility by scientists.

The motive of self-reference also runs through other debates about the right relationship between science and the public. In 1985, the Royal Society in London published its report “The Public Understanding of Science” (PUS).[5] The aim was on the one hand to improve the image of science in society, and on the other hand to educate the public more scientifically. In the end, this was intended to lead to a more scientific and rational political decision-making process, which, however, quickly turned out to be ill-founded hope. The “PUS” concept had been based on the so-called deficit model, i.e. the idea of a lack of knowledge on the part of the population, which was to be overcome by ‘more and better’, i.e. one-way and/or top-down communication.

In the following years, and under the influence of the debates on strengthening civil society, a new idea emerged: the deliberative “PEST” model (Public Engagement with Science and Society) called for a contextualisation of science in public debates. The aim here was to make a public assessment of science, for example regarding high-risk technologies such as nuclear power. Public debate formats and the involvement of civil society groups were intended structure the process of public opinion formation.

In contrast to the PUS/PUSH model, this model recognises that there are other forms of knowledge besides scientific expertise that need to be included in public opinion formation. However, it also assumes that the scientific process itself does not have to change. It does allow society to assess research results and to have a certain say where societal actors are concerned. Ultimately, however, the deficit model is reflected here in a weakened form.

Both approaches – PUS/PUSH and PEST – are only partially up-to-date. This applies above all to the deficit model on which the two approaches are based. Current examples of the interaction between science and the public, such as the “Fridays for Future” movement or the Rezo video, show how social actors acquire scientific knowledge independently, competently and actively in order to demand a stronger scientific orientation in politics with regard to the climate crisis and the extinction of species. Basically, this seems like the realization of the PUSH Memorandum with reversed roles. It can be seen as a strong sign of the arrival of a new paradigm: the social co-production of knowledge.

In essence, it is about science understanding itself as a part of society and opening itself permanently to other social actors as communication partners. In this new model, the aim is no longer to teach society scientifically by imparting knowledge from above, but rather to change science itself, to open it up and to be prepared to listen to and learn from society. It would at the same time be an offer to the population to (self-)enlighten, to engage in debate, to participate and to engage in dialogue with science. While PUSH and PEST can be considered to have relatively low success rates compared to the goals they had set for themselves, the chances of success for the co-production of knowledge are greater. While PUSH and PEST wanted to change society, the co-production of knowledge starts with the change of science itself.

The decisive step is no longer to assume a lack of knowledge in the population and the necessity of enlightenment, but to ask how knowledge from society becomes relevant for science, and to take up this knowledge. In many cases, this knowledge may not even be existent, but is being generated by joint activities.

We must, however, make a restriction here. The model of the co-production of knowledge is not a panacea or an end in itself. It is an approach that can be applied in very different ways to certain issues and problem situations, which today we often refer to as grand societal challenges. Not every discipline and every field of research should be blindly subjected to the new paradigm. Rather, the question should be where science encounters socially pressing questions.

We are of the opinion that it should be part of the freedom of science to determine where this is the case. In many cases, however, scientific institutions are drawn into social and political debates and an experience in dealing with public discourse proves to be an invaluable asset of an institution. Museums can be regarded as the paradigm of such a place of experience.

Museums as places for debate

Shortly before Robert Merton’s essay on the normative structure of science was published, Margaret Mead wrote a short commentary on “Museums in the Emergency”.[6] Three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the anthropologist described an amazing observation: In the midst of the general loss of trust in science, museums had managed to remain trustworthy places of knowledge.

Mead explained this as follows: During the museum visit, people could trust their senses and freely engage with the exhibited material objects, which held a “simple and calm truth” in store. For Mead, museums were therefore places of renewal of trust in science and democracy.

This image is certainly no longer valid today in this unrestricted sense, but a part of it remains true. Museums have become places of debate, where the presentation of objects, their origin and, associated with this, global justice, the handling of the history of violence and museum practices in general are debated. Museums are no longer places of quiet contemplation; today they are places of social debate.

Can they nevertheless be places of trust in science and, if so, in what way? They can only do so because with their collections and objects they harbor a tangible reality, a materiality that brings people together and invites them to enter into a debate about different perspectives on this materiality. In natural history museums, for example, the relationship between man and nature can thus be renegotiated – especially in view of the problematic history of the modern domination and conquest of the world, which becomes tangible in the objects in many ways.

In the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, we experiment with very different forms of communication: We have created the “experimental field” as an open space in the exhibition in which science and visitors can meet and try out different forms of participation in science. For example, every Friday we make the rooms available for exchange between the students of the “Fridays for Future” movement and scientists from various institutes. The museum thus becomes a forum for debate and a place where new ideas can emerge.

With such activities, however, museums move along a fine line between the role of a neutral convener and their own positioning on certain topics. As a place for debate, they have the potential to be a forum in which different perspectives and opinions meet and can be brought into a mutual, fruitful exchange. At the same time, they do not remain neutral in these activities, but already position themselves by choosing the invited actors and the chosen topics. How political can museums be without gambling away social trust? This question will gain importance in the coming years and will demand a great deal of fine-tuned judgement, scientific courage and political wisdom from museums and their leadership.

We have chosen the example of museums – in particular research museums and in particular natural history museums – not only because we know this institution particularly well. In our view, public places, in which very different people can meet, play a major role in the democratic knowledge society. The museum is a fascinating, already quite well-established example, but there are countless other places, each with its own qualities of public sphere: libraries, squares, gardens, bars, even shopping malls are public places where very different people meet by chance and which therefore have a great and sometimes underestimated potential for social knowledge production and participation in science.

New movements, such as Urban Gardening, or new formats of science communication, such as Pint of Science, which bring scientists to such places, are exploring this potential. They are alongside the classic places of enlightened science communication: academies, universities, associations and salons.

Citizen Science and the co-production of knowledge

The model of the place of debate, where scientific and social perspectives meet, still corresponds largely to the deliberative PEST model of science communication, which we have described above as inadequate because it lacks the aspect of mutual knowledge exchange. Natural history museums, however, are also pioneers of a (perhaps not so) new form of participation in science: citizen science.[7]

In history, the role of laypersons in science has been complex and quite contradictory. In many disciplines, science began as amateur research, for example in biology, taxonomy, geology or astronomy, and in many of these areas the importance of amateur research has not changed to this day. In the field of biodiversity research, for example, the role of amateur researchers should not be underestimated, for example in drawing up the “Red Lists” of threatened species. In 2017, the Entomological Association Krefeld, a civil research association founded in 1905, initiated a broad social debate on the loss of biodiversity internationally with a study on insect mortality.[8] For many years, public researchers had collected data on the distribution of insects in nature reserves in Germany and found a dramatic decline. At that time, no other academic research institution in Europe had such meaningful data at its disposal that could only be obtained through the independence of civic researchers and their persistent and local data collection.

Historically, the importance of amateur researchers can also be seen in the field of botanical and natural history collections: The collections that are now kept in natural history museums and that are still being researched can be largely traced back to amateur natural scientists. With the rise of experimental science in the late 19th century, however, the importance of amateur researchers declined drastically. Laboratories and archives became the determining places of knowledge production through experiments and highly specialized research, in which untrained amateurs could no longer participate independently. Only in a few research fields, such as taxonomy, does the role of amateurs remain significant to this day. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, civil society acquired science in a new way. In particular, the nature conservation movement used scientific methods to detect acid rain and water pollution, for example, and thus build up political pressure. In many cases, these movements were supported by scientists who called themselves “citizen scientists” to draw attention to the social responsibility of science. In some cases, however, a genuine co-production of knowledge already took place during this phase: One example is the “Act up” movement, which played a major role in research on HIV drugs during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Some lines can be drawn from these movements to what is now called Citizen Science. However, many of today’s Citizen Science projects have a different character. The definition of Citizen Science as civil science, as it is discussed today, did not emerge until the 1990s. Alan Irwin was the first to use the term in 1995[9] to describe the collaboration of citizens and professional researchers in setting research goals. Shortly thereafter, the term was used in the US to describe the participation of amateurs in birdwatching at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes Citizen Science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions”.[10] In the broadest sense, Citizen Science describes the participation of citizens in the production of scientific knowledge itself. However, this participation can take very different forms, which correspond to the normative expectations of Citizen Science to very different degrees.

In the scientific literature on Citizen Science,[11] the different types of Citizen Science are defined by the extent to which citizen scientists are involved in the research process: from pure data collection, interpretation of data, active participation in the formulation of the research question or method, to autonomous implementation or full integration in all phases of the research process. In the Netherlands, for example, the national research agenda has been shaped by a broad, participatory process. Much more often, however, research in the many new Citizen Science projects consists of collecting data for science. This type of participation certainly meets with great public interest: In recent visitor surveys at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, almost a third of respondents said they would like to participate in research activities.

Citizen Science’s approach is currently receiving strong support from science policy, especially because it holds great promises. These are mainly concerned with better communication of scientific competencies to broad sections of the population and scientific breakthroughs. However, the strength of Citizen Science is not, as is often promised politically, to educate the population as broadly as possible scientifically, nor is it to achieve scientific breakthroughs to the extent promised. With regard to the first question, there is still a lack of empirical studies showing who is actually involved in Citizen Science projects. However, experience from individual projects, such as the British OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) project,[12] shows that it creates considerable effort and costs to involve broad sections of the population in research projects on a sustainable basis. Anyone wishing to use Citizen Science to fulfil this kind of science policy hope must also be prepared to make these investments.

Perhaps the real strength of Citizen Science lies in another area. With this approach, it is possible to overcome the deficit model in the minds of scientists. After all, Citizen Science means bringing other types of knowledge, such as practical knowledge, empirical knowledge or practical knowledge, into contact with scientific knowledge. In this sense, the potential of Citizen Science is far from exhausted.

As justification for the promotion of Citizen Science, the contribution it can potentially make to overcome the great social challenges of our time, in particular climate change and the loss of biological diversity, is repeatedly pointed out. However, this does not only require short-term projects, but also the opportunity for citizens to make a long-term and sustainable scientific commitment. The often short duration of the currently funded Citizen Science projects seems to oppose this for the time being. How Citizen Science can contribute to a structural strengthening of civil society and a knowledge-based democracy, which prerequisites must be fulfilled to achieve these goals and how the activities can be anchored with a long-term perspective in the science system characterised by short-term funding instruments can probably only be determined through practical experience.

However, research funding is not the only future perspective for Citizen Science. More and more projects with a strong political orientation are emerging from civil society, such as Public Lab in the USA, which developed a simple and inexpensive technology for aerial photography in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and thus enabled local residents to collect data on oil pollution in their vicinity. The example of the Krefeld Entomological Association shows that the work of the traditional research associations is also gaining in importance again, even if they suffer from a considerable problem of young talent.

A new science for a new world

It is becoming increasingly clear that we can only tackle the major social issues if broad sections of the public are involved in solving them scientifically and socially and if science becomes a truly public good. Basically, in view of the climate debate, the biodiversity crisis and a multitude of other pressing problems, it is no longer a question of motivating people to deal with these questions and to acquire knowledge about the state of the world. It is about creating new approaches to knowledge and new places of knowledge production. Even though in our contribution we initially only talked about the relationship between science and the public and the involvement of citizens, it is necessary to include other social subsystems such as the economy or the media in these processes in a targeted manner.

Such a reorientation of science may often be paradoxical and difficult, and may confuse the established roles and job profiles. Nevertheless, a new world always calls for a new science, as Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in the face of the American Revolution. We are living in a time of transition and a time that must reinvent itself. In this context, the opening of science and the co-production of knowledge for tomorrow’s world represents a new approach that could be worth exploring on a large scale. We are committed to doing so.




[*] Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Research, Invalidenstrasse 43, 10115 Berlin, Germany. Corresponding author:
[3] Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. 2003. Last accessed on October 16, 2019.
[4] Merton, R.K. 1942. The Normative Structure of Science. In Merton, R. K. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 267-278.
[5] The Royal Society. 1985. The Public Understanding of Science: Report of a Royal Society ad hoc Group endorsed by the Council of the Royal Society. The Royal Society, London. Last accessed on October 16, 2019.
[6] Mead, M. (1941). Museums in the Emergency. Natural History, 48, reprinted in 2000 in Curator: The Museum Journal, 43: 187.
[7] Hecker, S., Haklay, M.E., Bowser, A., Makuch, Z., Vogel, J., & Bonn, A. (eds.) (2018) Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy. UCL Press, London.
[8] Hallmann, C.A. et al., (2017). More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE, 12: 1-21.
[9] Irwin, A. (1995). Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development. 212pp. Routledge, Abington/New York.
[10] OED Online (September 2019). “citizen, n. and adj.” Last accessed on October 16, 2019.
[11] For an in-depth discussion on the meaning of Citizen Science see: Strasser, B.J. et al., (2019) Citizen Science? Rethinking Science and Public Participation. Science & Technology Studies, 32: 52-76.




Scienza e azioni per la protezione delle specie – Nuove Arche di Noè per il XXI secolo

Conferenza 13-14 maggio 2019 | L'enciclica papale Laudato Si' rappresenta una forte critica al... Continua