How Citizen Scientists Can Work Toward Achieving Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development Goals, or simply SDGs, have been an important focus for governments and non-profit organizations around the world ever since the United Nations introduced them in 2015. The 17 unique goals represent some of the most pressing needs facing our global society today, and create a common target for people globally to work towards.

Many citizen science projects directly address SDGs, and, with the Global Citizen Science Month upon us, we’d like to introduce a concept that has inspired countless global initiatives, aiming to transform the world for the better.

If this is your first time encountering the concept of SDGs, bear with us! In this blog post the OSDG project will get you up to speed, and reveal how Citizen Scientists strengthen the work of science, technology and public policy, and pave the way to sustainability.

Identifying 17 of the World’s Most Prevalent Issues

SDGs have emerged as a global strategy to solve critical world problems.

Today, the SDGs encompass 169 targets and 232 indicators for monitoring their achievement. The topics of these goals cover five critical areas, the so-called 5 Ps: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.

The new Global Goals include issues that citizen science project participants contribute to every day: sustainable consumption and production, oceans, ecosystems, climate change and more.

To sum up, SDGs can be defined as:

  • Universal: All countries need to be on board.
  • Integrated: They encompass all the dimensions of sustainable development: social, economic, environmental and time.
  • Inclusive: The Goals are only achieved if everyone’s needs are taken into account. As you might have already gathered, the SDGs represent a long-term perspective that needs to be embedded in the decision-making of governments, businesses and society. It’s no wonder that science, technology and innovation have been recognized among the main drivers for shifting to a sustainable path.

However, the question of contribution to SDGs often sparks complex debates.

No Great Change Comes Without Its Challenges

One of the main challenges of the SDGs can be translating them into terms and actions that we can all agree on.

Dr. Nuria Bautista Puig, team member at the OSDG project, describes the issue:

“No progress comes without discussions and contradictions, and the world of science is no exception. SDGs can be a subjective issue, and one that is highly influenced by each individual’s expertise and knowledge.

For example, if I were to analyze an academic paper on the area of nuclear energy, could I attribute this type of research as a contribution to SDGs?

If I were to pass this question to environmental scientists, they might see nuclear energy as non-renewable and unsustainable, therefore, unrelated to the SDGs.

Physicists might beg to differ – after all, the environmental impacts of nuclear energy itself are one of the lowest, compared to other energy sources. In both cases, we are left with plenty of room for interpretation.”

And this precisely where Citizen Scientists come in! By opening the floor to the public for a structured and educated debate, it becomes easier to grasp the existing level of consensus around SDGs.

Your Interpretation of SDGs Shapes the World of Tomorrow

The OSDG Community platform project is a citizen science initiative that aims to bring together the knowledge and expertise of stakeholders from around the world to better understand their understanding of SDGs.

This project is based on an open-source classification tool – a partnership between PPMI, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) SDG AI Lab and a global community of researchers led by Dr. Nuria Bautista Puig. You can learn more about the tool by accessing the project paper on arXiv.

The project’s research team aims to give the voice to the community through an extensive public consultation: gathering researchers, experts and sustainability professionals of all geographical, educational, professional backgrounds and disciplines.

Dr. Lukas Pukelis, lead data scientist at the OSDG project, describes the project:

“A particularity of this project is that we seek to reach a broader social perspective.

Our research team aims to make traditional research participatory, more inclusive and open. This intention also reflects in our goal to contribute to multilingualism in Open Science by expanding the reach of the tool beyond the English-speaking world. This would allow us to better understand the contributions of SDGs in other languages, for example, Spanish, Turkish, Russian… You name it!

By joining the initiative, you are not only improving a free and open-source tool that caters to academia worldwide. You are also shedding light on the understanding of SDG-related research in different fields, countries, levels of economic development.

This data will be used to monitor research, discuss funding priorities and so much more, and your participation is a direct contribution to the world of tomorrow.”

How exactly does the participation unfold? For volunteers, the first phase of the project consists of reviewing short text snippets and assigning them into different Global Goals based on your professional/academic background or experience. Each label contributes to a better understanding of what is really a contribution to the Goals, improving the tool in the process.

Since OSDG is an open-source project, the team will anonymize the collected data and openly share it with the research community. This way, the newfound evidence will inspire and support research teams all around the world.

As of this moment, out of thousands initiatives available on the SciStarter platform, the OSDG Community Platform is the only project with direct relation to the SDGs. If you are fascinated with global sustainability and assisting the academic community, then this opportunity is right up your alley!

A unique feature of the SciStarter-OSDG collaboration is that, thanks to the tagging efforts of citizen scientists, you can now search projects on the SciStarter project finder by global goal. Want to address SDG 3, Good Health and Wellbeing? There are citizen science projects for that!

To learn more about the initiative, be sure to visit the SciStarter project profile and follow the project team on Twitter.

Update! (August 23, 2021)

Just over 5 months ago, the OSDG Community platform set out on a truly ambitious venture: to bring together citizen scientists from all around the world to create a large, accurate source of textual information on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Fast forward to today, and over 1 700 sustainable development enthusiasts from two thirds of the world have already contributed to a user-friendly text labelling exercise. 

More than 100 thousand text snippets later, the OSDG team has reached its first milestone and made part of the project data publicly available by sharing its very first Community Dataset (OSDG-CD). 

From now on, any researcher can access labeled and validated text excerpts and use them to generate insights through research papers, machine learning models, blog posts, you name it – all thanks to the amazing work of citizen scientists.

The OSDG Community platform project is gathering speed and is still recruiting participants who are passionate about sustainability. Join the global movement and help to create a knowledge base to support the SDGs!

Categories: Citizen Science

About the Author


Gustė Statulevičiūtė

Gustė Statulevičiūtė is the data team product lead at PPMI.