How can citizen science help solve environmental crises?

Isabel Bishop (Research Manager) and Toos Van Noordwijk (Science, Policy and Innovation Director) from Earthwatch Europe reflect on discussions from the recent British Ecological Society Annual Meeting about how citizen science can deliver real impact. The session was beautifully captured in the graphic recording above by Holly McKelvey, holly draws

‘Citizen science’ and the related terms ‘community science’ and ‘participatory monitoring’ have become buzz words in the last few years, although the concept of non-professional scientists taking part in scientific research has been around for much longer. Researchers are increasingly using citizen science as a tool to engage the public with their work while harnessing volunteer labour to collect vast amounts of low-cost data. For many applied ecologists, the potential of this kind of mass, low-cost data collection to better inform environmental practice seems incredibly promising. However, many projects fail to create the change they intended and find that ‘free’ labour can eat up a staggering amount of time.

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At Earthwatch, we have been leading citizen science initiatives for nearly 50 years. These initiatives range from ‘expedition’ style research where volunteers take part in short immersive data collection and education programmes, to mass participation surveys like the water quality focussed ‘WaterBlitz’, to ‘citizen observatories where communities work together with other key stakeholders to co-create monitoring programmes. Using citizen science to have a positive impact on the environment is one of our primary organisational goals. In these 50 years we have learnt from experience that, if we want to deliver this aim, it is crucial that we understand up front a) who our audience is and why they may want to take part, b) what our route to environmental impact is, and c) what we need to put in place to make this happen.

SLP59 credit Steven O'Gorman (205)
A citizen scientist takes measurements in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire, UK. Volunteers have collected ten years of data evidencing the carbon storage potential of native woodlands. Photo: Steven O’Gorman.

Citizen science is often promoted for its ability to collect large quantities of environmental data and simultaneously engage the public, and environmental impact can stem from either or both of these components. Data-driven pathways to impact include the use of citizen science data to support environmental management and/or to drive policy change. Socio-ecological changes resulting from public participation can include individual behaviour change, community action for the environment, and influencing (participants affecting other individuals in their direct social circles, or participants publicly advocating for businesses and governments to change their practice).

Different approaches lend themselves to different pathways to environmental impact. In addition, different audiences are more or less motivated to join different project types and support different impact pathways. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when designing citizen science projects for environmental impact. With this in mind, Earthwatch are hosted a thematic session entitled, ‘Beyond the hype: How can citizen science deliver real environmental impact?’ at the recent British Ecological Society (BES) annual conference in Belfast last December. Rather than simply promoting citizen science as a means for societal engagement, we brought together ideas, practitioner perspectives, and case studies that illustrated different opportunities for using citizen science to create a healthier and more sustainable environment. From this session, and by examining the characteristics of the case studies presented, we hope to identify key challenges and opportunities for using citizen science in impactful ways.

At Earthwatch we are continuously refining our understanding of how we can achieve environmental impact using citizen science. We are not alone in this. Indeed, research addressing the effectiveness and value of citizen science was featured as October’s Editor’s Choice in Journal of Applied Ecology. It seems that the time is right for the ecological community to come together to discuss how citizen science might drive real environmental change. We hope that conversations started at the BES conference will kick-start wider discussions about best practice for maximising environmental impact in the ever-growing numbers of citizen science projects in the UK and beyond. Citizen science has great potential, and, when we get it right, can catalyse change far beyond the impact of scientific publications alone.

Does your work involve citizen science? Submit to the British Ecological Society journals’ open call for papers for your chance to contribute to an upcoming special feature. Full details here.


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