Accelerating the 2030 Agenda through inclusive citizen science

The COVID-19 pandemic shows, in stark terms, how events that occur in one part of the world, no matter how remote, can have an immediate impact on other parts of the world. This is not only true epidemiologically, but it is also true politically, economically, socially, technologically and environmentally.

What started out as an epidemic very quickly morphed into a pandemic, requiring the world to impose unprecedented restrictions on human travel and social contact, in order to save millions of lives and to “flatten the curve”.

The global lockdown shut down a large part of the world’s economy, resulting in a drastic reduction of economic output which led to reduced consumer spending, increased business closures, major disruptions in supply chains and, ultimately, very high unemployment.

One of the interesting consequences of the global lockdown is that because people were required to stay home and-or practise social distancing, it increased the number of people participating in activities such as citizen science (CS) research projects.

Among other things, CS played an important role in COVID-19 research by crowdsourcing the collection of large amounts of research data.

This data helped researchers better understand the dynamics of the disease and how best to combat it. For example, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used CS together with an AI-based platform to help predict the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

This project illustrates how allowing people to participate in science projects that are meaningful to their lives not only helps to serve the public interest but also gives people a sense of purpose and community. For COVID-19, CS has been used for contact tracing, genomic analysis and vaccine monitoring, among other projects.

Citizen science: An inclusive public practice

Citizen science is the act of citizens (that is, the public) voluntarily collaborating with professional scientists to conduct scientific research. Non-expert citizen scientists may participate in any of the phases of the scientific process – that is, project design, experimentation, data collection, data analysis and problem solving – to address real-world problems such as sustainability issues.

A meta-analysis of the academic literature shows that most CS projects focus on three broad categories of research:

• Biology, conservation and ecology,

• Geographic information, and

• Social sciences, public health, and epidemiology, with the largest body of research found in category one.

In the first category, examples might include projects involving biodiversity, wildlife conservation, air and water quality, climate change, urban ecology and ocean and marine ecosystems, among others.

CS participants can include anyone, regardless of their age, socio-economic status, educational attainment or interests, thus making CS a highly inclusive practice. In short, science is, and should be, for everyone, regardless of one’s knowledge level of science.

Because science can be applied to many issues, there are many ways for people to get involved in helping professional scientists conduct science to solve real-world problems.

For example, citizen scientists have participated in the following activities: monitoring air quality, classifying galaxies from digital images, locating and collecting dinosaur fossils, collecting images of whales, collecting audio recordings of bats, recording pollinator activity in gardens and recording bird visits to feeders.

Of course, the quality of the data collected by citizen scientists is a top concern so quality assurance measures must be part of the process to ensure high quality data.

Citizen science serves the public because it results in a number of social and individual benefits at multiple levels. Some of these benefits include fostering public engagement, improving the democratisation of science, improving scientific literacy and understanding of indigenous knowledge, increasing social and cultural capital, accelerating research and broadening the scope and spatial coverage of research projects.

Thus, CS can serve as an effective vehicle for accelerating the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Integrating citizen science in higher education

CS has an important educative function as well, in that it helps to educate both students and the public about science and the scientific process as well as making science more democratic by serving the common good.

All those who serve the public interest, such as colleges and universities, should work towards making science more accessible and more participatory inside and outside of their institutions – in short, a more inclusive learning process.

In addition, there are many different types of science projects that students at all levels can get involved in. In higher education, for instance, CS projects could be part of a class project that students participate in and earn credit for while learning about real-world sustainability issues.

Furthermore, the topic of climate change is an overarching theme of citizen science as it connects the natural and social sciences, making CS projects ideal for interdisciplinary work.

CS projects can provide an effective way to make a course more interesting by engaging students in the community through real-world science projects, just as service learning projects do to support the community.

For natural science and related courses, some potential projects that promote the 2030 Agenda include monitoring biodiversity, assessing air and water quality and ecosystem restoration projects.

In social science and related courses, some potential projects include implementing recycling and circular economy initiatives, environmental conservation, energy efficiency initiatives and climate change awareness programmes.

In arts, humanities and related courses, some potential projects that promote the 2030 Agenda include art projects to communicate sustainability principles, sustainable architecture, urban planning, revitalising public spaces and sustainable transportation.

CS projects also serve the benefit of showing students across all academic disciplines why sustainability is important and it provides concrete ways that they can help promote activities that lead to a healthier planet.

In addition, CS helps to engage students who are under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines with an authentic way to learn more about science and increase their interest in sustainability. And giving students choice in selecting the type of CS project they wish to engage with should help spark student motivation in CS.

No agenda other than truth-seeking

Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the end of World War II, the world has become increasingly globalised and internationalised. As a result, the world has also become increasingly interconnected and interdependent. The more developed nations become, the more this phenomenon will increase.

While interconnectedness can have potential negative consequences (for example, global pandemics and global recessions), this interdependency can also have many positive consequences, such as increased international trade (through comparative advantage), leading to a higher quality of life and standard of living for all.

To that end, CS provides many benefits to students, institutions, society and the world at large. CS has a proven track record of success as an inclusive public practice. For instance, the important role CS played in helping to better understand the dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By harnessing the power of crowdsourcing, CS can also help accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Science is not ideological – it can be applied to virtually any issue. Through an analysis of empirical evidence, science is simply a way to understand the world in order to make the world a better place for everyone. The scientific process itself has no agenda other than truth-seeking. As such, it serves everyone and benefits everyone when guided by humanistic values such as those articulated in the 2030 Agenda.

Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct professor of education at St John’s University in New York City, United States, and chief research scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association or HETL. Abhilasha Singh is professor and vice-president for academic affairs at the American University in the Emirates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.