Citizen Science: this research is brought to you by citizens

  • Area: Other
  • Area: Other
The term Open Science could be taken quite literally. To open up access to science to a wider audience, but also to open up the production of science to people outside academia. Research questions could be formed from the curiosity of citizens, and these citizens could also very well contribute to, for example, data collection. This idea, of including citizens in the academic process, is called Citizen Science. Citizen Science is the topic of this month’s Open Science Practice of the Month.
Foto Jolanda Oest: Anjo de Haan

This month’s Open Science Practice shows how supportive the research environment is in the UMCG to not only researchers, but also to other staff members who have interesting research questions. When UMCG staff member Jolanda Oest wanted to know how big the problem of period poverty is in the province of Groningen, she found Master student Pauline Breuer of the minor More Healthy Years willing to investigate this problem. This led to a report that was presented to the municipality of Midden Groningen, where it was accepted. Resulting in the municipality now offering menstrual products for free in primary and secondary schools.

Jolanda, what is period poverty and what made you decide to take action?

“Period poverty means that girls and women don’t have enough money to buy products like sanitary napkins, tampons or painkillers, to make it through there period comfortably. The first time I heard about period poverty was in the end of 2019, when I read about this being an issue in Scotland. The local foodbank confirmed this was an issue in my municipality, Midden-Groningen, as well. That was why I bought five big baskets which I placed in the shops of local shopkeepers, with their approval, so customers could donate menstrual products. I advertised this via a press release and through a Facebook page I started called Bloedserieus Midden-Groningen. On my free Wednesday I would collect the donated goods. Sometimes the baskets were overflowing, meaning I had to collect more than once a week.”

When did you decide academic research needed to be performed on this issue?

Jolanda: “When Covid came the stores had to shut and donations could no longer be collected. So I wanted to come up with a more structural solution. What if I could convince the government to tackle the issue of period poverty? To get policy makers on board I would need to have some real academic evidence of the size of the issue. The impact of period poverty on, for example, school and work absence must be huge! But evidence did not exist on the Dutch context. Because I work in the UMCG I knew about the Healthy Aging team. They work, amongst other things, on health inequalities, and connected me to Jochen Mireau, who then was the scientific director of the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health. He let me pitch my research idea for UG students of the minor More Healthy Years. Four students then choose to research the issue which led to the scientific report ‘Seizing Educational Opportunities to Combat Period Poverty in Midden-Groningen’. We presented this report to the municipality council of Midden-Groningen, the result of this is that menstrual products are now freely available in alle schools in the municipality.”

One of the researchers who investigated period poverty is Pauline Breuer. Pauline, what made you decide to do research into this topic?

“I chose period poverty because I had not heard of it being a prevalent problem in the Netherlands before. I was interested in finding out more about the problem and possibly finding evidence for the prevalence in Midden Groningen to help drive change.”

What were your main findings? How big is this problem in the Netherlands?

“It was very hard to find any exact numbers, because it is a sensitive topic and the population we were studying is very vulnerable. We did find some quantitative evidence that young females in Midden Gro-ningen suffer from period poverty, which can be found in the report we wrote. As for the national level, we believe that there is period poverty in low-income cities, though this would need further investigation. However, we did find that there is lacking information on menstruation in most sexual health programs in the whole of the Netherlands, which we found quite surprising, considering the quality of sex education in the here.”

What are the next steps?

Jolanda: “The scientific report concluded that period poverty is not just a shortage of menstrual products, but also of knowledge and education on the issue. In 2023, Bloedserieus Midden-Groningen asked students training to be biology teacher at NHL Stenden Leeuwarden to develop new teaching material on menstruation. This led to a board game and an escape room. These games were recently tested on students in the 2nd and 3rd grade of mavo, havo and vwo in Hoogezand, where it was received with much enthusiasm. Bloedserieus and NHL Stenden are going to investigate how to give the subject of menstruation (poverty) a more structural place in biology lessons. My next step is to ask PABO students to develop teaching material for primary schools.” Researcher Pauline Breuer also has some next steps in mind, albeit from a research perspective. “For me, the next steps would have to be to find a way to quantitatively measure period poverty in the Netherlands as it might make policy makers more likely to act. This could be done through some anonymized surveys or by targeting teachers in low-income areas. Additionally, it is of importance to find more information or statistics on the health burden that unsafe menstruation practices have on girls (i.e using other products for menstruation that are not deemed safe). This would allow for more evidence on the burden that period poverty has and clearer reasoning to change something. It would also be interesting to look at countries like Scotland that introduced free menstrual products and see how they measured improvements in period poverty and if these methods could be used in the Netherlands.”