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Sunday, Aug 02, 2020 13:30 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Aug 02, 2020 07:48 [IST]

Citizen science – promising approach to environment management

Dr DEBAPRIYA MUKHERJEE
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 challenges are immense. The biological and physical systems of our planet are undergoing rapid rates of change as the impact of human activities becomes nearly ubiquitous. Stressors like urbanization, deforestation, land conversion to agriculture, and climate change strain the capacity of natural systems to sustain life and threaten the persistence of many species. 
Citizen science (CS) offers a powerful tool for tackling these challenges. CS (also known as community science, crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer monitoring, or online citizen science) is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur (or nonprofessional) scientists.  CS is sometimes described as "public participation in scientific research," participatory monitoring, and participatory action research whose outcomes are often advancements in scientific research, as well as an increase in the public's understanding of science. CS works alongside science, education, and civic engagement and is increasingly being a discipline in its own right.  Researchers reclaim two dimensions of the relationship between citizens and science: 1) that science should be responsive to citizens' concerns and needs; and 2) that citizens themselves could produce reliable scientific knowledge.
CS can improve conservation outcomes by building scientific knowledge, informing policy formulation, and inspiring public action. CS is implemented mainly in industrialized countries such as the US, European nations and Australia, and it is increasingly 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. For developing countries, CS has potential to collect adequate information/data on various environmental issues through continuous monitoring of the sources responsible for environmental pollution. Long term changes of natural resources and land use over the time and space can be assessed based on inhabitants’ perception.
Critical appraisal of CS is an emergent need to achieve our goal by  helping people involved in conservation science and decision making, natural resource management, and environmental protection.  In this context, 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 people and to  provide institutional support is require, that must be decided.  In particular area, major sources of pollution can be easily identified by the inhabitants. During my visits to polluted cities, interestingly I have explored inhabitants’ perceptions of the environmental issues in more details. They are able to take few actions (forced the industries to control emission/discharge, store the raw material properly, representation to regulatory authority with objective evidences, sprinkle the water for controlling dust etc.) to reduce their exposure and discussed with me about inefficiency of regulatory agency in  addressing  these problems.  I have realized that new approaches are needed to engage residents not only with the environmental issues but also to conserve the nature. One way to do this is through actively engaging people in monitoring their own exposure to pollution and that would be new opportunities to identify measures that might reduce their exposure.
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 profession 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 utilizing wastewater into fish pond is a unique example of inventing sewage fed fisheries and waste water treatment 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 realize  what had happened. Instead of any adverse impact on fish growth, the water of the pond doubled fish yields. He practically designed  the combination of sewage in the water and sunshine broke down the effluent and allowed plankton, which fish feed on, to grow exponentially without spending any money towards growth of fish and treatment of sewage by natural reactor.  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 realized.” 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 source of pollution in a single stream; it can also address issues at regional or global scales, such as climate change or the world's great animal migrations.
Generally quality of freshwater is assessed  through a core set of easily measurable parameters, namely dissolved oxygen, electrical conductivity, total oxidized nitrogen, nitrate, orthophosphate, pH and bacteria; and proper measurement of water quality is often the starting point for addressing complex water quality problems through management and governance. The present gap in water quality data is therefore recognized as a key challenge for governments to care for the freshwater of their territories. To address this data gap efficiently, researchers emphasize on the integration of non-traditional data sources in water quality monitoring, such as data collected by citizens and that would bridge the data gap. Major motivators in collecting data by citizen are personal scientific curiosity (learning about the environment),  environmental concern (sustaining the environment), and token of appreciation to fulfill social commitment as well monetary incentive. Social commitment may encourage citizens to act as scientists. The recognition of citizens' observations by scientists will play a crucial role in motivating citizens to continue monitoring. Finally, stronger social networks between citizens and local governments may be established in the course of the project, contributing to the uptake of citizens' activities in environmental decision making.
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. Every year, tens of thousands of volunteers go to the forests, grasslands, wetlands, coasts, lakes, streams, and even their own backyards to provide high-quality, usable scientific information. Many large and longstanding projects will 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.  If the goal is to gather data for advancing scientific and political debates, data must be reliable. Hence, protocol must be defined to select interested common people, students and member of environmental organization with their background and impart adequate training to them on implementation of specific standards to ensure 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. Instructional videos and the provision of handbooks will help to support this training process. Also, citizens are to be encouraged to share data and questions both within the community of citizen scientists and with the leading institution.
Engaging greater numbers of people in science can increase our understanding of Earth's systems and find culturally and politically feasible solutions to problems. By spreading scientific knowledge and engaging more people in policy formulation, CS can help reach solutions that lead to better environmental and social outcomes and avoid unnecessary conflict.

E-mail dpmcpcb@yahoo.com

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi