Is there a role for the citizen scientist in policy making?

A new in-depth report by the EU Commission’s Science for Environment Policy team was released earlier this month highlighting the role of citizen science in today’s science and policy making worlds. At national, EU and global levels citizen science is taking off, with increasing numbers of projects, smartphone apps and citizen ‘cyberscience’ (online crowdsourcing) opportunities being initiated to help advance scientific research projects and increase science education amongst the masses. But what is the policy impact of this science?

Citizen science, despite its recent upsurge, is not a new concept and has history dating back to at least the early 19th Century. Charles Darwin, for example, had no formal environmental scientific training when he set sail on HMS Beagle, yet the contributions he made to science are significant. Whilst the definitions and ways to ‘do’ citizen science vary and can be argued, the simple fact is that both scientists and the public are getting increasingly excited about it. Environmental and ecological citizen science projects are very popular; bird and butterfly monitoring, species identification and detection of tree pests and diseases are just some of the ways which the public can become involved in ‘real life’ science. Indeed, here at the British Ecological Society a Special Interest Group specifically for citizen science has recently been set up to help promote and support such projects.

But whilst there are growing numbers of participants and increasing enthusiasm for taking part in ecological citizen science projects, just how far can citizen science be taken to develop and benefit environmental monitoring and policy making? How can questions over the value and accuracy of the data produced be addressed? The in-depth report explores these questions drawing on examples from countries where many citizen science projects are taking place, such as the UK and the USA.

New technologies can be used to explore public perceptions of environmental issues or policy solutions, as well as being used as tools to gather data and observations which then inform policy. Apps, games and crowdsourcing information have all provided new and innovative ways to engage people in science projects. Projects considered within the report include EU funded projects such as COBWEB, which uses ‘people as sensors’ to explore citizen involvement in decision making regarding the Welsh Dyfi Biosphere Reserve, and Eye on Earth, which uses marine litter observations from citizen’s smartphones to inform monitoring as part of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

The report also considers the quality of data that citizen scientists generate. From a policy perspective, the evidence required to support a decision must be unbiased and robust. Whilst uncertainty over accuracy of data can vary between citizen science projects and will inevitably always be a problem, many argue that the data obtained is still extremely valuable, cost effective and can dramatically reduce the amount of time it would take to obtain had fewer, more professional people undertaken the work. The report highlights some of the ways data inaccuracies can be addressed, such as increasing the amount of data collected to try to compensate for inaccuracy or getting others to ‘check’ observations.

At the moment, there are still relatively few examples where citizen science projects have had a distinct impact on policy and decision making. However, this influence of citizen science in part depends on the judgement of level of impact. Monitoring projects may not bring about immediate policy change, but their value in building up evidence bases is invaluable. The UK Biodiversity Indicators rely directly on the long term data that NGOs and their volunteers collect for species such as birds and butterflies. These biodiversity indicators feed directly into wider UK and global policy, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Other projects that focus on observing and identifying invasive species, for example PlantTracker and the Harlequin Ladybird Survey, are valuable and will become increasingly relevant to policies in this area such as the recently proposed EU Regulation on Invasive Alien Species and developing tree health policies within the UK.

Citizen science has an extremely important role to play in today’s ecological science and research, and through technology, innovative projects and new partnerships the involvement of the public will only increase. Understanding the role of citizen science projects in policy is relatively hard to gauge but nevertheless is invaluable for building up evidence bases and directing change. Equally, given the educational values citizen projects can instil, such projects may be influencing people’s mind-sets which in turn could influence policy decisions in more abstract ways. As such, people really are power, not just for science but for policy making too.