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New Reports Offer Best Practices for Citizen Science Programs

November 2020

(Washington, DC):  Citizen science—the gathering of data by non-professionals— is gaining traction as a tool in environmental protection. Citizen science is used to assess the impairment of rivers, lakes and streams, monitor air quality at a hyperlocal scale, and report regulatory non-compliances.  Not surprisingly, environmental agencies at the state, tribal and local level are increasingly transforming their approach to citizen science. The Environmental Law Institute was commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to explore and characterize this recent uptake of citizen science by environmental agencies and assess its uses in environmental protection programs.

“The evolving relationship between citizen scientists and environmental agencies is creating real value for communities and environmental protection programs,” explained Kasantha Moodley, Manager of ELI’s Innovation Lab and a co-author of the reports. “Although this relationship has existed for some time, the emergence of new technologies, an increasingly aware public, and the rise of unexpected pollution events has reinvigorated the way agencies and citizen scientists work together,” she added.

EPA asked ELI to characterize existing and new ways citizen science is being adopted by environmental agencies, define the best practices, and identify strategic steps that can be taken to support the use of citizen science for environmental decisionmaking. The findings can be found in three newly released reports:

  • Citizen Science Programs at Environmental Agencies: Case Studies looks at 15 agency programs that actively involve the public to complement official agency action and establish a collaborative role in protecting the environment. While ELI sought to highlight a wide range of citizen science examples, the emphasis is on citizen science at environmental agencies and its uses in environmental protection programs, particularly in air and water programs.
  • Citizen Science Programs at Environmental Agencies: Best Practices identifies best practices for environmental agencies that are interested in or actively pursuing citizen science. The best practices focus on generating reliable data, building a supportive network, and securing long-term commitment for citizen science programs--with the intention of creating shared value for environmental agencies and the public.  Each best practice is described in detail and supplemented with relevant examples from the case studies. 
  • Enabling Citizen Science Programs at Environmental Agencies: Recommendations to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlines the key issue areas and makes strategic recommendations to the U.S. EPA and other potential partners on how to facilitate the uptake of citizen science and sustain the use of citizen science across agencies and programs.

Though challenges do persist, the opportunities that citizen science presents to both agencies and the public are substantial. Citizen science has already demonstrated an ability to create shared value for the public and for agencies alike. The next steps involve harnessing its full potential by assessing all the ways citizen science can be employed for environmental protection, by expanding the uptake of existing models, and by collectively addressing the risks and barriers to its use in environmental protection programs.

The papers are available for free download at: https://www.eli.org/research-reports

This work was undertaken by ELI’s Innovation Lab, a program that explores societal shifts and its implications for the environment. The Lab is currently focused on better understanding the environmental impacts and opportunities of digital technologies and assessing the potential of citizen science to improve environmental decision-making. Through high-impact research and engaging communities of practice, the Lab continues to advance scientific, technological and policy innovations that promise to reshape the future of environmental protection.