Citizen science, if properly harnessed as a tool of scientific inquiry can address areas of research and concerns that would otherwise be neglected
The enormous scale and complexity of current environmental problems pose serious challenges for the fields of conservation biology, natural resource management, and environmental protection. The biological and physical systems of our planet are undergoing rapid rates of change as the impact of human activities becomes nearly ubiquitous.
Citizen science (CS) offers a powerful tool for tackling these challenges. CS is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur scientists. CS is sometimes described as "public participation in scientific research," participatory monitoring, and participatory action research. CS works alongside science, education, and civic engagement and is increasingly being a discipline in its own right.
CS can improve conservation outcomes by building scientific knowledge, informing policy formulation, and inspiring public action. CS was implemented mainly in industrialised countries such as the US, European nations and Australia, and it is increasingly being witnessed in China as well as in the Global South. CS is still less visible in developing countries, challenged by accountability, data accuracy, lack of trust, and specific cultural issues among others.
Critical appraisal of CS is an emergent need to achieve our goal by helping people involved in conservation science and decision making. In this context, the most important task is to provide a balanced assessment of whether, when, and how to employ CS to help meet information and public engagement needs. If any investment to develop expertise among citizens and institutional support is required, that must be decided. In a particular area, major sources of pollution can be easily identified by the inhabitants.
CS is not new and has started several decades ago as a collaboration of scientists and non-professionals in ongoing research projects to provide raw measurements in many fields. Before science first emerged as a profession, keen amateurs, volunteers, farmers and people engaged in other professions conducted scientific research and made valuable contributions to the understanding of climate, conservation, ecology, pollution control, evolution, geology, electricity, astronomy, and other phenomena.
In India, the traditional practice of utilising wastewater in fish ponds is a unique example of inventing sewage fed fisheries and wastewater treatment leading to sustainable socio-economic development pertaining to resource recovery in the Eastern Kolkata wetlands, a Ramsar site. Around a century ago, a cultivator accidentally allowed untreated wastewater from Kolkata's sewage pipes into his fish pond with a curiosity to find out what had happened. Instead of any adverse impact on fish growth, the water of the pond doubled fish yields.
Sewa Henry David Thoreau's painstaking records from the 1850s of the first flowers, leaves, and bird arrivals each spring are now used by scientists to identify the impacts of climate change. In the 1930s and 1940s, Aldo Leopold noted a range of discoveries made by contemporary CS volunteers and concluded that "the sport-value of amateur research is just beginning to be realised." In fact, CS volunteers continue many of Leopold's research projects today.
In this context, it may be mentioned that CS projects can pursue basic or applied science. They can monitor ecological or environmental baselines, respond to crises, and inform management actions. CS can tackle issues at local scales, such as identifying the sources of pollution affecting human health; it can also address issues at regional or global scales, such as climate change or the world's great animal migrations.
Major motivators in collecting data by citizens are personal scientific curiosity, environmental concern, and token of appreciation to fulfil social commitment as well as monetary incentives. The social commitment may encourage citizens to act as scientists.
Citizens' increased awareness may encourage political and administrative actors to improve the qualitative status of resources drawing a link between the knowledge of ecosystems by citizens and environment management by the political-administrative system. Many large and longstanding projects would not be possible without volunteers who produce long-term datasets, collect data over large geographic areas, detect rare events and species, and address areas of research that will otherwise be neglected.
However, citizen-derived data may also be selective and biased resulting in mistrust and reluctance to use such findings in high-level policy and decision-making forums. A protocol must be defined to select interested common people, students and members of an environmental organisation with their background and impart adequate training to them on implementation of specific standards to ensure the reliability of data and to build trust. In terms of the design of training, training methodologies and equipment should be kept as simple as possible so that citizens can easily pick up the relevant information. Engaging greater numbers of people in science can increase our understanding of Earth's systems and find culturally and politically feasible solutions to problems.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal