Citizen Scientists Unite! Back at the UN with the Citizen Science Global Partnership

Citizen Smith goes to Nairobi, the Sequel.

Get Ready for a Different Breed of Scientist. Citizen Scientists of the World Assemble at the UN.

This posting is adapted from the GigaScience blog which promotes Open Science and in this case Citizen Science — as an example of opening and democratising science to such an extent it is powered by public participation.

In December 2017 our CitizenScience.Asia Founders Scott Edmunds and Mendel Wong were part of the Citizen Science delegation that attended the Science-Policy-Business Forum at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA3) in Nairobi (read more here), with the aim of establishing a Global Secretariat to work with the UN and promote citizen science across the globe. This was the first time a coordinated push was made to promote Citizen Science at the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment. A lot was achieved on getting these approaches onto the agenda in many sessions, presented at the closing plenary, and even getting citizen referenced in UN resolutions.

The UN Campus in Nairobi on the first day of the UNEA4 forum.

Follow the success at UNEA3, the 20-person delegation assembled again for the 4th UN Environment Assembly this month to keep up the momentum and further promote Citizen Science on the global agenda. This was a chance to see how far the movement has come, and also provide a venue for a governance meeting of the new Citizen Science Global Partnership that was the biggest achievement to come from the previous gathering. Tackling the issue of geographical gaps in Citizen Science networks, building from the well established US, European and Australian Citizen Science Associations, since the previous meeting CitizenScience.Asia has worked with lawyers to go down the formalization route. A new Ibero-American network has been announced (Red Iberoamericana de Ciencia Participativa), and there have been continuing moves to form an African Citizen Science Association. The Global Partnership again had a logistical meeting after the Science and Business forum hosted by the African Citizen Science Association at the lovely United States International University-Africa campus in Nairobi. Although with the Citizen Science Association meeting immediately after the US contingent had to fly off immediately (see a write-up of the meeting in this by one of our members).

This was the second time that the Science-Policy-Business Forum was hosted at the UN Environment Assembly, and with the theme of #SolveDifferent this year the format and themes changed slightly in this edition. While there were still a large variety of session formats, including Q&As and TED-talk style presentations in the opening and closing sessions, a new feature was the “GreenTech Startup Marathon” where 9 Green Tech entrepreneurs got to give “Dragons Den” pitches to a panel of judges. With startup investment at an all time high, not enough is going into green tech, and this was an interesting experiment to see some of the latest green tech solutions including pollution detecting drones, solar microgrid generator finance, and eco-crowdfunding platforms. While staged for the audience this hopefully provided a taste of what with come out of the new UN Green Technology Hub and accelerator launched at the meeting. Another addition was the “World Environment Situation Room”, for pop-up discussions and demos bringing together and visualizing many environmental data streams.

In the period between assemblies Citizen Science seems to have gone mainstream, and the delegation didn’t even have to raise the issue for the topic to get discussed in most sessions. Marine litter surveys utilizing citizen participants are now part of the UN and European Union research toolkit in quantifying and addressing the plastic pollution problem. And the European Union has developed an inventory and analysis of citizen science practices that can assist environmental policy. While we have a long way to go in Asia, the beauty of a global secretariat is that it can help promote successes in one part of the world and use these experiences to convince policy-makers, researchers and interested citizens to apply them elsewhere.

Members of the delegation participated in a number of sessions, Anne Bowser from the Citizen Science Association and Martin Brocklehurst and Steffen Fritz from the European Citizen Science Association giving their input in many sessions. The delegation also hosted a session on “Citizen Science for Smart and Sustainable Cities of the Future” that was live streamed (see the archive here). On top of launching a new “what is Citizen Science” short film for the Global Partnership produced by the Crowd and Cloud (also shown in the closing plenary) the session also featured Kathleen Rogers from Earth Day Network announcing the Earth Challenge 2020. An ambitious plan to engage millions of global citizens to aggregate and collect more than one billion data points to answer crucial scientific and environmental questions.

Citizen Science versus the Sustainable Development Goals
A lot of the focus at the UN is quantifying the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Governments have made a commitment to achieve these by 2030, although there is almost no indicator data on the state of the environment. Jillian Campbell, Chief Statistician of UNEP presenting the depressing statistic that it is estimated there is only data available on around 30% of the indicators. There is huge potential for citizen science to fill these gaps, and the Citizen Science Global Partnership has set up a SDG and Citizen Science Maximization group specifically with this issue in mind. In the closing plenary we again issued a declaration on our aims and commitments specifically tackling the context for meeting these goals. The Citizen Science Delegation’s statement at UNEA4 was as follows (and also see the video of Anne Bowser reading it).

The Citizen Science Global Partnership (the Partnership) was founded at the 1st UN Science Policy Business Forum to coordinate and amplify the work of the global citizen science community. In support of the UN 2030 Agenda, the Citizen Science Global Partnership will:

  • Ensure global reach and representation — the Partnership has supported new associations forming in Africa, Iberoamerica and New Zealand; and an office will be opened in Geneva to complement the presence in Washington D.C.
  • Support global networks of CITIZEN SCIENCE projects — the Partnership supports the Global Mosquito Alert Consortium for vector-mosquito monitoring; and an emerging research coordination network for local pollution impacts on human health.
  • Support the UN in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — a Working Group within the Partnership is linking CITIZEN SCIENCE initiatives to the SDG framework in areas such as Air and Water Pollution, addressing gaps where there is insufficient indicator data.

The Citizen Science Global Partnership is working with international agencies such as UN Environment and UNESCO to create a Roadmap to support CITIZEN SCIENCE across all UN activities, and is seeking additional global partners in Science, Policy and Business.

Anne Bowser reading the Citizen Science Delegation’s statement at UNEA4

Many of the delegation stayed on through the main UNEA4 assembly to see things through until the UN Resolutions were passed at the end. Once again there was success in getting Citizen Science included in the UN resolutions, and it was particularly pleasing to see resolution L.27 on “Keeping the World Environment under Review: Enhancing UNEP’s Science-Policy Interface and Endorsement of the Global Environment Outlook” explicitly state the UN GEO environmental assessments should be “Encouraging citizen science efforts and their potential contribution as a complementary source to fill data gaps”.

In the main assembly the Science and Technology Major Group issued a statement presented by Stephen Stec endorsing the utility of Citizen Science data, encouraging Member States to support evidence-based decision-making using it to increase scale and resolution through the growing field of citizen science. Using language closely related to our UNEA3 summary, it stated that Citizen Science emphasizes collaborative intelligence and co-creation to facilitate scientific and community-based solutions.

Stephen Stec from the UN Science and Technology Major Group promoting Citizen Science.

Being a gathering of the worlds top environmentalists, everyone present at the meeting were very aware of the urgency in tackling climate change and promoting sustainable development. Confronting the challenges we face can be stark enough, but this year the meeting was particularly sombre because of events out of everyone’s control. With the Ethiopian Airlines crash the day before the main assembly, many delegates and UN employees were on board, so many of the attendees were shocked to lose close friends and colleagues. There were tributes and moments of contemplation at the opening and closing of the meeting, and we would like to end this with a dedication to all who were lost in this tragedy. So many of who had dedicated their lives to make a better planet for us all.