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Citizen Science: Concepts and Applications

Friday, November 13, 2020
Celine Yang

Celine Yang

Research and Publications Intern, ELI

The first session of the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) six-part citizen science webinar series explored the current and potential uses of citizen/community science initiatives to improve environmental monitoring, compliance, and enforcement around the world. Citizen science encompasses a broad range of activities, ranging from the use of low-cost hand-held air monitors by individuals to sophisticated, university-based monitoring networks and satellite monitoring plans by large environmental NGOs. These activities can raise awareness of environmental issues, inform agency actions including compliance and enforcement programs, and inform citizen litigation to stop polluting activities.

Growing interest in citizen science and the development of new advanced monitoring devices in recent years has facilitated a rapid expansion in community/citizen science. In the United States, legislation from 2016 encourages federal agencies to support and utilize citizen science. The webinar convened panelists from various federal agencies and research institutions to discuss the current landscape of citizen/community science, policy applications, and new developments and opportunities in the field.

globeThe first presenter, Lea Shanley, Ph.D., defined citizen science as “the contributions of the public to the advancement of science.” Involving the public in scientific research and monitoring efforts reduces costs while making enormous contributions to monitoring, compliance, and agenda-setting efforts. One study estimates that citizen science projects around the world involve between 1.3 and 2.3 million people each year, amounting to in-kind contributions of up to US$2.5 billion each year. Citizen science has a wide range of applications, such as solving challenging scientific problems, generating new data applications and technologies, providing hands-on STEM learning, and increasing scientific literacy. Advances in technology such as machine learning may enable and enhance citizen science projects even further.

National and global citizen science organizations are working to advance the “science of citizen science” while addressing credibility, quality, and legal concerns. Efforts include advancing policy and regulations on citizen science, forming partnerships with federal agencies and communities to increase funding opportunities in citizen science and its incorporation into federal policies, developing robust methodologies for data quality assurance, and addressing legal issues. Collaborations with governmental agencies and political actors have led to the creation of the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, the endorsement of citizen science from multiple agency executives and leading scientists, a White House Memorandum on citizen science issued by the Barack Obama Administration, and the introduction of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015.

The second speaker, Alison Parker, Ph.D., drew a distinction between terminology: while “citizen science” mainly involves institutionally driven work by parties such as NGOs, universities, or government agencies, “community science” efforts are collaboratively led or driven by communities themselves to address what’s important to them. Community science efforts often address environmental justice issues, such as the case of communities using low-cost sensors to monitor local air quality or testing for contamination in fruits and vegetables in home gardens.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other U.S. agencies have incorporated citizen science into their programs to strengthen public support for EPA’s mission and to connect with the public. In a report, the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT) recommended that EPA embrace citizen science as a core tenet of environmental protection, invest in citizen science for communities, partners, and the Agency, and enable the use of citizen science data. To bolster and encourage citizen science, EPA could articulate and implement a vision for citizen science at the Agency, provide funding for citizen science projects, or adopt a positive cooperative agenda that increases the utility of citizen science data.

Alison made the case that citizen science can be used not only for community engagement, but also for regulatory decisions, standard-setting, and enforcement. Given the evolving nature of environmental data, EPA should prepare necessary standards, guidance, and communication that could make citizen science more applicable to regulatory actions. Examples include the Office of the Inspector General’s report on aligning EPA research programs with its public participation objectives and EPA’s Citizen Science Quality Assurance and Documentation Handbook.

Citizen science has pushed decisionmakers to recognize data gaps and a lack of infrastructure for solving local and neighborhood-scale problems. It has also spurred the creation of laws that encourage and invite the use of citizen science data and programs. However, general skepticism toward citizen science remains related to data quality and scientific rigor, uncertainty surrounding rapidly changing technology, and legal barriers such as the Information Quality Act, Paperwork Reduction Act, ag-gag laws, and strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) suits.

The final presenter, Martin Brocklehurst, discussed citizen science’s potential to motivate global climate action. For example, the European Union’s (EU’s) decision to ban certain single-use plastics was driven by citizen science data and research on marine litter.

Since 2013, citizen science associations have formed in the United States, the EU, Asia, Africa, and South America. With support from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), these associations have come together through the Citizen Science Global Partnership, which promotes citizen science networks and research, provides open citizen science data, and enables citizen science to help achieve the United Nations (U.N.) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—contributions that are now recognized by the U.N. Environmental Assembly (UNEA4).

Moving forward, practitioners may want to focus on emerging First Amendment issues in the United States and the Aarhus Convention in Europe, which investigates the right of citizens to collect environmental data. Actions should also be taken to address the right of citizens to collect data for science programs, protect the interests of scientists, and fund citizen science projects equitably. Groups should work to advance equity in all aspects of citizen science, including participation, funding, and partnerships with institutions. It is imperative to encourage collaborative citizen, community, agency, and governmental action to support the development of citizen science in a rigorous, equitable, and innovative manner.

For more information on past and upcoming webinars in the citizen science series, please visit https://inece.org/events/.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.