One billion people engaged in citizen science by 2020. This bold goal was part of a Global Vision Statement presented at the Science Policy Business Forum for the Environment, which preceded the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) annual Assembly (UNEA) in December 2017, Nairobi, Kenya.
More significant than the goal itself, however, is what prompted it – UNEP’s interest in and support of citizen science. Why the focus on – and high hopes for – citizen science from an authority that sets and promotes the global agenda for environmental sustainability? And what does UNEP’s interest mean for us, those doing the work that could reach one billion people?
An overly simple answer to the first question may be found in UNEP’s investment in a pilot citizen science community and platform, Global Mosquito Alert. This initiative has great potential to capture and leverage locally-relevant data to inform large-scale environmental policy and action to manage health risks.
But from a bigger-picture perspective, UNEP’s interest may relate to the principles that inform the UN’s larger agenda for the environment. These include innovative strategies for collective and equitable engagement and action, particularly towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that UNEP hopes to achieve by 2030. There is good indication that citizen science may serve an unique role in fostering the knowledge and governance needed to advance, and track progress towards, these kinds of global goals (see Danielsen et al. 2014 and Chandler et al. 2016). For example, by collecting information at spatial or temporal scales beyond what “traditional” science can support, citizen science can yield both locally relevant and globally-scaled data required to understand the SDGs. Citizen science can also build or strengthen relationships between UNEP and local communities, where individuals may become more engaged in advancing and tracking SDGs through scientific work and can offer insights into which SDGs should be prioritized locally.
Achieving this kind of substantive impact – not just big numbers of participants – calls for citizen science that is well designed and well supported. It was with this idea in mind that an invited Citizen Science Delegation drafted and presented the Global Vision at the December 2017 UNEP events in Nairobi. With support from UNEP and partner organizations, three reprentatives from CSA were in attendance: Board member Anne Bowser of the Wilson Center (who co-led the Delegation along with Martin Brocklehurst from the UK), Interim Director Jennifer Shirk, and Board member Shannon Dosemagen (who was invited by UNEP to share the work of her organization, Public Lab). They joined representatives from Associations in Europe and Australia, and citizen science delegates from many other regions of the globe (including a burgeoning citizen science association in Asia).
Despite many interests striving to be heard during this global event, the Delegation was granted prominent billing both in plenary session at the Forum (video of presentation by Johannes Vogel, ECSA Chair) and – significantly – in front of the subsequent Assembly itself (via the Science & Technology NGO working group).
Connecting visions, goals, and agendas across a global scale is complex – something the UN can appreciate. The statement included a commitment to launch a global consortium for citizen science. This consortium, to be housed in its formative phase at the Wilson Center and led by Anne Bowser, will network across citizen science associations and provide a single point of contact for addressing global opportunities. The Global Vision statement also announced the formation of a new African Citizen Science Association, spearheaded by faculty at the United States International University just outside of Nairobi. The Delegation spent a morning with local and regional leaders, reflecting on the process of growing Associations for citizen science.
By building collaborations across citizen science networks, the goal of reaching 1 billion people by 2020 seems within reach (recent estimates of those already engaged suggest we are well on our way). It will take a more concerted effort on the part of this global community to additionally address the Sustainable Development Goals. There ways both small and large that we can do this together. For one, CSA is joining UNEP in inviting the citizen science community (among others) to pledge to beat pollution, something that many of us address through our citizen science efforts on a regular basis. CSA will continue efforts to recognize and support the hard work of those leading citizen science with integrity for both research and engagement, and attentiveness to best practices that will help us realize the potential of citizen science to achieve the SDGs. We look forward to being one voice among many to bring news and opportunities from the global citizen science community to our members, serve on global delegations as a voice for the power and impact of citizen science, and connect both with our members and with the global community to advance citizen science at all scales.