A Coming of Age for Citizen Science [OP-ED]

Image: Charles Linnaeus (Wikimedia)

Has anyone noticed how much media coverage citizen science is getting? Bird counts, tree monitoring, bee cataloguing, water testing, ocean analyses, air sampling and star gazing—the list goes on and on. When the European Commission published an in-depth report in December of 2013 on whether or not participatory science influences policy, I thought—whoa, citizen scientists have an influence in the development of policy? After digging through the topsoil of this subject, I uncovered an interesting development.

Consider that there is now such a rise in the conscription of volunteers working to collect scientific data that colleges and non-profits are offering courses and classes to train citizen scientists, and researchers are studying how best to deliver these classes. There exists a range of programs which are largely grouped according to the following categories: training volunteers to understand science but not to collect data, training participants to collect data but not to understand the underlying scientific problem, and training citizens to both understand the problem and to collect data.

Understanding Science

The Rutgers Cooperative and Research Extension, for example, has formed a partnership with Duke Farms, the Atlantic County Utilities Authority and others to create a statewide Environmental Stewardship certification program which produces science-literate graduates, but it does not train enrollees to actually collect data. The program trains graduates in the basic processes of earth, air, water and biological systems. It improves awareness of the methods and instruments used to measure, monitor and assess environmental health, but it isn’t a crowd sourced science journeyman program.

Explaining the emphasis, Bruce Barbour the program director said, “If there’s one focus I personally try to communicate, it’s to try to kindle an enthusiasm in the science process and a greater awareness of the role that participants should be playing, whether or not they have an educational background in science.” Barbour here highlights that the program has citizen science in mind without actually training students in data collection. The curriculum is designed to introduce non-scientists to the science underlying key environmental issues. Barbour adds, “There’s only one place in the program where we really get down to how science is practiced—we talk about logistics, how science is determined and whether something is probably true or not.”

Categories of Citizen Science

The Associate Professor of Environmental Education and Citizen Science at Rutger University, Dr. Rebecca Jordan draws a distinction between programs, “Citizen science falls into two different categories. Some of the programs I have been involved with at the national level began with scientists requiring citizens to collect data—the scientists engaged the public to collect data, much like research technicians do. And then other programs involved a community rallying around environmental health issues, with the citizens approaching scientists, saying they will collect the data if the scientists will analyze it.”

Non-profit organizations typically provide exactly the type of training their monitors need to collect the data they require to fulfill their mission.This might fall into Jordan’s second category. For example the Mystic River Watershed Association offers a Citizen Scientist Training Workshop, which provides training on water quality monitoring methods and concepts. By completing the workshop, volunteers are equipped to support the organization’s Baseline Monitoring Program. This program includes further training, monitoring events at least once a month, the use of water quality monitoring equipment, and how to use data sheets. This is where the education takes citizens the step beyond understanding science to actually collecting data. (Not all citizen scientists have to understand science.)

Researching Delivery Methods

As regarding research into delivery methods, in a 2009 Colorado State University study funded by the NSF, the university offered training that stated, “Volunteers will be equipped to be successful as citizen scientists,” but the study actually investigated the effectiveness of different training approaches—in-person and hands-on, online training, and online multimedia presentations. Amongst other topics, volunteers received instruction on invasive species and the use of GPS, however the purpose of the program was on testing the course delivery method, while the program trained citizens in data collection techniques. Another example is the gamifying of citizen science, which was reported on here.


The University of Minnesota Extension program delivers the Driven to Discover course, which is designed to teach young people basic participatory science techniques, but with the express purpose of preparing them to engage in authentic research. Groups of children, facilitated by a trained leader, learn how to ask questions, pose a hypothesis, and then answer their queries through observations. This curriculum, as with many others like it, traces the scientific method more closely. A child or retiree—both of whom make excellent citizen scientists, might participate for altruistic reasons, sheer fun, or for environmental justice, but what about those who wish to see their name published in a journal? In an article for The Futurist, Kathleen Toerpe says, “The most vexing challenge facing citizen science, however, may be forging a new model of collaboration between scientists and volunteers. At what point do highly trained amateurs become dissatisfied with tallying and collecting data or discerning patterns in data sets, and demand a more vocal role in project creation, administration, funding, and even final published output?” Toerpe goes on to highlight a project that is creating open-source “communities of shared interest” in which participants can create their own local environmental projects, “sans scientists.” The project is a work of The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science.

History of Volunteer Participation

Rutgers Class of 2012

Historically, crowd sourced science projects were informally classed according to the objects, subjects, or locales studied. In an article published in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Journal, the authors, led by Dr. Abraham Miller-Rushing a Science Coordinator with the National Park Service, points out that members of the public have been participating in, and contributing to science for centuries. Before the professionalization of science, amateurs who demonstrated an interest in a particular topic or question conducted research. Consider for a moment that Charles Darwin had no formal science training.

As early as the 17th century, these ‘specialist’ amateurs would sometimes recruit volunteers to gather samples for them. The authors cite the account of a mid-18th century Norwegian bishop who created a network of clergymen to contribute observations and collections of natural objects throughout Norway to aid his research. “This was a common way for early ecologists, such as John Ray and Carl Linnaeus, to collect specimens and observations from across the known world,” say the writers. These contributions by untrained scientists helped build some of the most valuable critter-collections we have.

Influence on Policy?

Air Pollution by Warren Gretz
“Air Pollution” by Warren Gretz

But what influence does this participatory science have on policy? Is it possible for this longstanding tradition of volunteer involvement in scientific research to actually sway environmental and other policy? In the European Commission Report on Science for Environmental Policy, the authors survey the history of citizen science, present a few definitions and a number of case studies, as well as an overview of the emergence of new technologies such as Smartphone use, apps and games, before saying…well, no, “It is difficult to provide evidence for the influence of citizen science on environmental policymaking, particularly as in Europe at least, many initiatives that emphasize participatory forms of democracy are in their early stages.”

It appears that citizen science is supported as being valuable in the European context, but there seems to be a difference between identifying that value exists, and that citizen science is actually contributing to policy. What I mean is that the authors state that citizen science can provide “…evidence to support regulatory compliance and inform policymaking,” but that this is not yet being done. Part of the reason for this seems to be the validation of data. “In viewing citizens as simple data collectors, their potential to provide valuable evidence to underpin policy may have been underestimated, perhaps because of doubts about the quality of volunteer-collected data.”

Crowd sourced science can be split into two categories depending on the quality assurance methods employed: verified citizen science, in which observations are checked by experts; and direct citizen science, in which observations are submitted without verification.

Environmental Justice

NPC, SRRL, Pyrheliometer Comparisons
Denver smog / Image: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

The last sentence in that European Commission Report—the bit about citizens being motivated by local threats—got me thinking about the US once more. Does the recent birth of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) citizen science website indicate a trend in this direction? In reply to an email, the press officer for Region 2, John Martin said, “The EPA is in the beginning stages of evaluating the development of a national program, which would be applied across the Agency. The national program would leverage Region 2’s groundbreaking work.” What was that bit about “groundbreaking work?”

The recently launched website carries some examples. One of these shows how crowdsourced science can be used to influence policy. In this EPA video a small community group collected emissions data resulting from 53 industries in a two-mile radius. They then presented this data to the EPA who initiated a one-year study to verify what they found. After the findings were confirmed, a series of local ordinances were passed which reduced emissions by a whopping 66 percent! This represents a method in which citizen science can be used to gather initial data to prompt a more formal study that does result in policy-like change. It gives me pause to consider how many environments in the US are just waiting for a citizen scientist to gather up their Smartphones and air monitors, before heading out to collect data that will influence policy.

Having said that, it seems there is a big jump between collecting that data and influencing the Clean Air Act. Dr. Jordan commented on this point, “While citizen science might generally be used to influence local town or city ordinances, it gets far more difficult to do so at the state or federal level.” She says that the fundamental reason many citizens get involved in crowd-sourced science is to change the laws by which their city is governed. “Traditionally the water quality monitors have been one of the strongest groups, but now there is a national phenology group, so the EPA is trying to look at that.” Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate, and plant and animal life. Projects such as Budburst track the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants in a consistent manner so that scientists can use the data to learn more about how plant species respond to climate change.

Changing How Officials Go About Their Business

In a telephone interview, Deb Szaro, the Region 2 Director of the Environmental Science and Assessment Division described one successful outcome from this approach when she cited an account of air monitoring in New York City. “You often have a situation when something happens and the citizens are not very happy with it, they want things changed because they are disproportionately burdened. They want environmental justice. And so we had a situation where New York City closed a bus depot in the Bronx, and overnight they sent 200 buses to Northern Manhattan, to the Harlem area without any community consultation.” This pushed the total of number of busses up to around 1,400, most of which didn’t even serve routes in their district.

There was a disproportionate burden on this community, so they did something about it. Armed with air-monitors, the group measured diesel emissions (which are often related to asthma). Szaro says, “They then mounted a big media campaign, which blitzed the state. The governor subsequently had the Mass Transit Authority commit to an investigation, which resulted in them converting all the busses to clean energy, and the depots to natural gas.” That seems to be the pinnacle of the citizen science influence on policy. As Szaro says, “The results don’t change the policy at the state or federal level—after all, citizen science has traditionally operated at the local community level—but they do change what officials focus on, how they go about their business.”

Citizen science is increasingly viewed as a way to empower communities by involving them in research that can be used to drive forward such positive changes, particularly when it comes to environmental justice. And while the findings collected have yet to produce any significant contributions to policy, it seems there is growing local community traction in the US. Perhaps one day, data collected by these volunteer participatory scientists may even be used to influence climate change policy.

Videos: http://youtu.be/Uevr3vjWDt8

References: The Futurist, July-August 2013, Vol. 47, No.4 ESA Journal: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, August 2012, Vol. 10, Iss. 6

Websites: https://www.epa.gov/region2/citizenscience/air.html http://envirostewards.rutgers.edu http://www.extension.umn.edu/environment/fwce/conservation-education/citizen-science/

Categories: Citizen Science


About the Author


Ian Vorster

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at www.ianvorsterphotography.com.