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Information to Action: Strengthening EPA Citizen Science Partnerships for Environmental Protection


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The new report from the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT) is out: "Information to Action: Strengthening EPA Citizen Science Partnerships for Environmental Protection." This report is a follow-up to the Council's first report, "Environmental Protection Belongs to the People." There are ten recommendations to the EPA in the report(s). As articulated on the EPA's website: The Council’s April 2018 report, Information to Action—Strengthening EPA Citizen Science Partnerships for Environmental Protection, and the recommendations contained within were developed following extensive interviews with citizen science experts and practitioners. The 10 recommendations in NACEPT’s second report on citizen science outline how EPA can foster collaboration and partnerships to use citizen science information and data for action that improves human health and the environment. These high-level, overarching recommendations focus on strengthening pathways that move citizen science from information to action. I had the privilege of serving on this Council during the development of both reports. I encourage everyone to read the reports and share the recommendations with your local, state, regional or national EPA contacts. Share them with your communities (neighbors, university colleagues, industry coworkers, NGO collaborators). Keep pushing. While all of the recommendations are important, the following excerpts called out to me for variety of reasons: “Communities who engage in citizen science are often trying to be recognized as people who have something important to contribute. They are often trying to document what they are experiencing in a way that regulators will notice. They understand that science talks and will be heard while they will not because they are poor or black or women. That is not to say that science isn’t relevant—it is— but they’re asking for more than that. They’re asking for the EPA to protect them and to respect them as people who can credibly be believed in terms of what they are experiencing.” –Dr. Gwen Ottinger, Drexel University Potential collaborators do not know if and when the Agency is available to partner on citizen science efforts, and many organizations tend to think of EPA only as a regulatory agency and not as a resource. Moreover, there is a lack of understanding on how to approach the Agency or engage EPA in a new partnership, especially when the potential partner is a small or local organization. Additional barriers to partnerships with the Agency include a lack of staff dedicated to citizen science efforts, the inconsistency of EPA participation, and restrictions in EPA’s scope of work. This limits and inhibits maximum use of citizen science data of a known quality. For example, Quality Assurance Project Plans (QAPPs) provide information regarding data quality, and EPA does not approve QAPPs for work not funded by the Agency. A cross-section of EPA personnel at different levels and roles at the Agency have varied ideas and perceptions about the meaning and use of citizen science. At the local level, many described citizen science as a tool for working with members of the public with scientific knowledge or skills, including working with these skilled members of the public to gather needed data for decisions and learn data collection techniques. Scientists within EPA Headquarters programs described citizen science as any information received by the Agency from outside sources. All of these are useful definitions and complement the overall goal of partnership, cooperation and collaboration between EPA and states and territories, local jurisdictions, external organizations and tribal nations. This diverse set of ideas, however, speaks to the need for consistent policies and guidance for citizen science among EPA staff, especially those who already work with communities. “When EPA communicates data, they focus only on how it can inform individual choices. The overall message seems to be, if AQI is bad, stay indoors. Most people, especially the most vulnerable people, don’t have those choices. EPA should look at the data in terms of how it reveals systemic issues, in order to improve environmental quality.” –Dr. Gwen Ottinger, Drexel University Recommendation 10. Build EPA expertise in advanced technology to facilitate collaboration and strategically engage in citizen science at national and international levels. Rapid advancement in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, virtual reality and the Internet of Things have the potential to radically alter the way that environmental governance structures work and how the public participates in data collection and use. Effective technology partnerships are possible when EPA employees recognize and understand new technologies and can participate in national conversations about emerging, open and advanced technologies. EPA should provide internal training sessions on these advanced technologies and encourage and incentivize expertise in these areas for the following four reasons. First, this would allow the Agency to be aware of trends and advancements in these rapidly developing areas. Second, EPA could facilitate collaborations with the private sector. Third, EPA could strategically engage in bringing technology to citizen science groups. Finally, the Agency can help to develop opportunities and challenges to move citizen science data and information to action. Action Item EPA should increase the expertise of Agency employees on emerging and advanced technologies through training, encouragement and incentives and create systematic funnels to share new resources with citizen science groups. If you're reading this blog, I don't have to tell you how fast this field is growing and changing. But I'll sprinkle in this chart anyway. This shows the cumulative number of citizen science projects and events registered on SciStarter between 2009 and now. The number of participants, number of contributions, and even the number of available low cost citizen science tools, show similar trends. We'll post more about that shortly.

Cumulative # of citizen science projects and events registered on SciStarter

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