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To create change we need to reach hearts and minds, citizen science is exceptionally well placed to do both

Toos van Noordwijk, Director of Science, Policy and Innovation at Earthwatch Europe highlights the importance of citizen science to the environment.

August 2020

The series of data related blogs Link published last week has put a spotlight on the vital importance of good environmental data like species’ status data and water quality data. Data are essential to understand the state of the environment, the direction of travel and the changes needed to create a sustainable and healthy environment for people and wildlife.

Several datasets that were highlighted in the blog series are collected by citizen scientists – members of the public contributing to scientific research - but this often receives little attention. Despite the best efforts of the NGOs running these schemes, the huge value volunteers create by committing their time for free, remains undervalued and underfunded. A key reason that the contribution of citizen scientists is often kept silent is that there is a persistent prejudice that citizen science data would be of poor quality. Yet this has been overwhelmingly proven to be untrue. The quality of citizen science data is not inherrently worse than any other data source. With the right methodologies and data validation protocols, citizen science data meet a very high standard. Well run, well funded citizen science schemes generate reliable, robust datasets, providing large scale snapshots of the state of the environment, detailed insight in species’ population trends or early warning of pollution incidents.

The field of citizen science has rapidly evolved and progressed over the past few years and a wealth of data standards, good practice guidance and data interoperability standards have been created by the international citizen science community. There are now many more opportunities to involve people of all walks of life in robust scientific research and monitoring schemes, generating unprecedented understanding of the state of our environment.

Incorporating citizen science in environmental monitoring frameworks not only creates opportunities to collect vastly more data, but also creates greater resilience of monitoring systems. For example, during the covid-19 crisis, the monitoring capacity of many government agencies was vastly reduced due to staff shortages, difficulties in sending people into the field and other priorities overtaking monitoring. Citizen scientists, in contrast, were often able to collect data close to their homes throughout lockdown. Using and integrating this source of data would have given us a much better understanding of the threats to our environment during these unprecedented times.

But that is not all. Besides its ability to generate more and more diverse data, citizen science has a huge additional value: involving the public. Citizen science allows the public to become an active part of the conversation rather than passive consumers of (often gloomy) updates on the state of the environment. Involvement in citizen science allows people to get hands on, meet the experts and understand the environment and the process of data collection. It allows them to see, feel and hear how our environment is doing, inspiring them to create change. Involvement in citien science encourages people to reflect on their own role and behaviours, spread the word among friends and challenge authorities to do better. The data they collect create an opening for constructive conversation between citizens and authorities, based in facts.

To create environmental change we ultimately need to change people - in all their identities; citizens, corporate employees, policy makers - and their behaviours. We can only achieve this by influencing both hearts and minds. Citizen science is uniquely placed to achieve this. It is time funders and policy makers understand the role citizen science can play, recognise its huge potential for impact and support the use and expansion of citizen science. This gives us the best possible chance to generate both the data and the interest and action needed to create real, lasting change for a cleaner, fairer and sustainable environment.

Toos van Noordwijk is Director of Science, Policy and Innovation at Earthwatch Europe.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.