An Introduction to Citizen Science

Article by Sagarmoy Phukan

Each year in April, we have Global Citizen Science month and we at NEDA thought of talking about the topic. This event started as a single-day event that went into a coordinated effort from many collaborators around the world and right now various activities are undertaken throughout the month of April. At this point, you must be wondering what is CITIZEN SCIENCE!?

In simple words, Citizen Science is the involvement of the general public or citizens (a non-institutional scientist) of a country or state or town involved in any scientific endeavor that helps in highlighting social issues through various modes of participation. In current times, citizens are involved with a large number of scientific process where they have contributed towards data collection and improved scientific literacy (Galaxy Zoo, SETI@home or India’s own citizen science projects Indian Bio-diversity portal; Biodiversity Atlas – India; Biodiversity Collaborative). Citizen Science has a broad concept where inclusion and participation of the public plays an important role i.e., the democratization of science and participation in scientific research. Citizen Science has proved as a potential pathway towards contributing data to monitor SDGs. Its power has been proven immensely in physics and biology however its application towards SDGs, especially in the environmental sector is emerging yet limited.

Citizen Science is not a new concept. In fact, experts as early as the 17th Century would use non-experts or citizens to collect data. In 1874, the Transit of Venus project which was funded by the British government to study the distance between the Earth and the Sun was supported by the most prominent amateur astronomers by collecting data. Another example is the court diaries in Kyoto, Japan, recording the cherry blossom festival for over 1200 years.

Over the years, citizen science in environmental science and studies has grown tremendously. It started as a tool to address ecological questions (biodiversity; geographical ecology, etc.) that were unachievable with professional science; and secondly, to carry out studies that are local in nature and would not be interesting enough for a research scientist to undertake the research. Such projects might look into local problems like air pollution, water pollution, biodiversity, etc. which might lead to local policy intervention. In the last two decades, internet integration with everyday life has helped in increasing the number of citizen science as the internet has helped in increasing ‘visibility, functionality and accessibility’ of projects. In this brief blog article, I would like to discuss why we need citizen science in a developing country like ours to tackle environmental degradation and climate change.

Source: AAAS

The Paris Agreement 2015 provides flexibility on a country’s Green House Gas emissions where countries can set their emission limits voluntarily through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Hence each country in the world has set its targets and the developing countries have been given a chance to have a higher quota of emissions each year due to their late industrialization. However, the pressing climate crisis seems too much nearer. The Metronome’s new digital clock in Manhattan illustrates a critical window for action to prevent the effects of global warming from becoming irreversible and we have just seven years to grow into crisis. Such alarms have been raised previously on several occasions. However, such alarms work properly when showcased to the general public or when they are involved. Even after mass public participation, changes have only been brought in developed countries. The foremost reason is due to the prevalence of citizen science community-based participatory research (CBPR) or Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) in developed countries.

Based on the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) hypothesis, industrial economies have higher environmental degradation than post-industrial economies. Most developing countries are still in the industrial age. Countries like India and China are more dependent on the growth of industries for their economic growth and with flexible accountability (Paris Agreement) they have come up as one of the highest polluters in the world. The citizens of these countries are also less aware of sustainability as they compete for economic and social security. For overall development and progress towards Sustainable Development, people’s participation from various sectors has become a necessity. Not only will it contribute towards monitoring and evaluation of (Sustainable Development Goals) SDGs but it will also help in creating accountability of government and their policies.

Till now, we have seen a limited reach of Citizen Science in developing countries. Most of the citizen science projects in these countries are funded by external agencies. However, with new ICT tools and sophisticated internet connections and applications; effective data collection by crowdsourcing can be utilized to gather data collection over large spatial and temporal resolutions and hence citizen science can experience considerable expansion. In India, after the launch of the Jio Network, internet connectivity has become affordable to the majority of the public making information and connectivity available to the majority of the population. In October 2020, Delhi State Government had launched the ‘Green Delhi App’ under their anti-pollution campaign where citizens can upload photographic data on pollution. This is one step towards citizens contributing data for their local issues.

However, compared to European counterparts, these developments are slow, and with irreversible climate damage progressing, it is imperative that all citizens of the world need to be aware of the problem. Citizen Science also brings in indigenous and local knowledge. Countries like New Zealand promotes the indigenous knowledge of the Maoris through participatory approaches.   

Today, Citizen Science is emerging as a powerful tool for policy process as it can be effectively used to identify social problems related to the environment, farming, health, etc. However, like any other field of study, Citizen Science has its advantages and drawbacks too. Challenges in Citizen science relate to various fronts starting from data collection, its quality to organizational structure and stakeholders involved.

Currently, national and international development organizations are promoting transparency and participation to create evidence-based policy decision making which will be most benefited with a strong connection to citizen science. Evidence has also shown it to be a cost-effective and reliable approach to collect data. Citizens participating in such exercises have seen growth in their scientific literacy as they learn to hone their observation skills and learn to use new software and instruments. It is assumed that that citizens gain knowledge and understanding on topics they are participating in. Professional scientist too improves their understanding as large data sets are analyzed by a large number of participants. Collaboration leads to the co-designing of projects with citizens which can be a transformative learning experience for both professional scientists as well as citizens.

Source: Google Image

Project co-designing enhances active participation as it reflects ownership of the projects and helps in addressing societal issues. Co-designing requires the development of a common language for communication between professional researchers and participants, which might help in preserving the local language by adding new vocabulary while developing a common language. This transformative learning also helps in understanding how local communities think about various issues such as biodiversity, ecology, etc. This helps in understanding and contribute more to science society and policy interactions.

Citizen science reflects the empowerment of citizens. It enhances their bottom-up decision-making capacities. It is seen that people are motivated by monitoring projects, especially seen with environmental and ecological issues; however, people prefer to collaborate with projects led by Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) or academic institutions rather than private or government agencies but in most cases, academia lead projects were funded by national governments. The “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire states that the poor are oppressed by virtue of their poverty. One can see citizen science as a tool to break free from oppression where vulnerable communities can illustrate and highlight their issues with pieces of evidence to the decision-makers

3 Comments »

  1. Qualitative assessment of Citizen science described with sustainable development agenda ,as an root for policy making of country to achieve the Sustainable target.

    Liked by 1 person

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