In ways that did not exist even ten years ago, everyday people are acting as scientists: contributing their time and data to make notable discoveries, answer lingering questions, and develop awareness. Motivated by technology innovations, public concern, and limited institutional capacity, citizen science is gently reshaping the conventional systems that address human health and environmental protection.
Particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and carbon dioxide (CO2) measurements were at one time the sole purview of government agencies, usually sampled only across broad regional areas. Today, these measurements can be read on sensors around your wrist, mounted in your home, or attached to your iPhone. These consumer-grade devices may not have the precision of federally regulated air quality monitors, but their ubiquity makes it possible to detect pollution hotspots and trends, generating public awareness and the drive for impactful solutions and persistent change.
Citizen generated data can also help communities assess the toxic pollutants that they may be exposed to, monitor water quality to assist agencies in determining what waters are considered “impaired” (triggering more stringent regulatory requirements), or call the authorities’ attention to activities and operations that require enforcement action.
However, it is one thing to gather data and another thing to transform the data into concrete outcomes such as a new regulatory standard or a court ruling. The image below reveals a spectrum of citizen science data uses and reflects a shift toward high impact data uses such as environmental permits, zoning applications, launching of investigations, and prosecutions. These are just a few ways in which citizen science can influence policy.
Image adapted from A Vision for Citizen Science at EPA, NACEPT, December 2016
At the same time, government policy also shapes the work of citizen scientists in both positive and negative ways. For example, the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2016 endorsed the use of data generated by private individuals and encouraged federal agencies to use such data as a resource. In response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a Handbook for Citizen Science Quality Assurance and Documentation to strengthen scientific integrity of citizen science data and to improve outcomes. On the other hand, some laws, usually at the state level, create impediments to citizen science. For example, a number of states have enacted laws penalizing efforts by activists to monitor agricultural operations; Wyoming adopted a law (later partially struck down as unconstitutional) increasing the penalties for private parties who trespass on private land to gather environmental data.
In response to these developments, the Citizen Science Association has formed a Law and Policy Working Group to address both of these issues: increasing the impact of citizen science and helping citizen scientists understand and navigate the various laws and policies that shape their work. The Environmental Law Institute is co-leading the working group along with Harvard Law School’s Emmett Environmental Law Clinic, author of the Citizen Science Manual.
The working group officially kicked off in March this year at CitSci2019 with an introductory workshop. One of the key issues raised in March was the limited support of environmental justice communities as citizen scientists and their efforts to influence policy and government action. These communities are largely developing their efforts using low cost, consumer-grade devices and partnering with local research institutions. These efforts in many cases do not result in the intended outcome due to difficulties in forming partnerships and managing expectations, or because the resulting data is not scientifically robust and does not persuade the government to act.
The working group heard these concerns and hopes to serve as a platform to facilitate solutions to these and other challenges by defining the issues, sharing information, and collaborating with others. This working group is not an advocacy group, but will broadly support the citizen science community in their efforts for improved outcomes. Here are a few immediate steps planned by the group:
- Create an online channel that citizen scientists across the country can use to submit once-off questions about legal issues they are confronting. The Harvard Clinic will respond to these questions, and the responses will be available to the entire citizen science community.
- Seek a deeper understanding of the issues that impede successful working relationships between scientists and communities and determine ways to improve these partnerships for better outcomes.
- Share relevant policy resources (manuals, tools, research, policies) and information (webinars, events) with the citizen science community.
The working group is unlikely to find simple solutions to the challenges facing citizen scientists. However, we hope that it can contribute to understanding what strategies are most likely to lead to a real impact in the real world.