**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
While the goal of many citizen science programs is mainly to produce solid scientific data and better understand the world we live in, the elevator pitch about such programs often then leads to ‘oh, and it’s a great win-win-win because it increases scientific literacy, provides needed data to management, and empowers the community’. We’ve taken on the educational component, so let’s delve into the empowerment side of that claim. Groups claim empowerment as motivation to support citizen science, but some have written that the empowerment win may just be a ‘flash in the pan’, something secondary to scientific goals and subject to be lost when another form of science becomes the new exciting thing. photo: Birds at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex who benefit from local rice field conservation practices stemming from citizen science, discussed below.
First, unpack the word empowerment – what exactly is this process promising? Empowered individuals to productively direct their curiosity? Empowering community groups to strengthen their efforts? Empowering people to learn the language of science and use that for a stewardship end? There are many ways to interpret this claim of empowerment, and in each case, one or many might be true. But as with most all-encompassing promises, it’s likely that groups aren’t realizing all of its many facets. So instead, let’s tackle a few popular case studies as real-world examples.
Audubon Society: science to activism
“By being part of the process [of citizen science], it is our vision that a growing number of people will become empowered to take action on behalf of places important to them and important to wildlife, giving birth to a new culture of conservation” – National Audubon Society definition of citizen science
So, the logic goes: count some birds, talk to ornithologists, become connected to nature, and get motivated to participate in conservation activism. Audubon houses both citizen science and wildlife conservation campaigns, so should serve as a logical home to provide that kind of empowerment. Citizen science serves as an easy entry point into the world of bird conservation. Early history of Audubon’s longest-running citizen science program, the Christmas Bird Count, was created to change the holiday tradition of a competitive deadly bird hunt into a different kind of competitive hunt, this time with binoculars.
While this is a logical chain of activities, especially when housed within the same organization, rigorous analysis of this question is not yet out in the scientific literature. A local example of this chain in action is the use of eBird data to start a shorebird conservation program within the Central Valley’s rice fields – many of the people who collected these data were the same to communicate it to the decision-making parties, with the addition of some other environmental groups. While examples certainly exist, there is some evidence that the link is tenuous and circumstantial. Mueller and Tippins draw a distinction between different kinds of groups, suggesting that this connection can only be drawn when volunteers have action motivations to begin with, such as when groups are grassroots-originated. They document that citizen science can provide the knowledge and skills to become a successful activist, but volunteers must decide to take that kind of action (and some may be happy just creating data).
Earthwatch: science to personal ethic
“To engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment” – mission statement
In order to meet this mission, Earthwatch brings volunteers to volunteer for science during their vacation, all the while contributing to their personal development as ecological citizens. This could be as part of Earthwatch’s action campaigns, but also in daily behaviors and developing personal environmental ethic of younger generations. Ultimately, it’s about volunteers becoming armed with the information needed to make environmentally-friendsly choices in the future. In a review of the Earthwatch Coyote Project, 75% of participants reported through a survey that their attitudes had changed, though mostly through increased knowledge of coyotes specifically (especially combatting the popular perceptions of cototes as dangerous) – but only half of those could say the same about conservation in general, with a similar number committing to future stewardship activities.
This is where the link to empowerment is perhaps the weakest, however, even though scientific investigation of the subject is strongest. A survey of bird volunteers showed no attitude change as a result of participation in citizen science efforts, likely because the group of volunteers was already environmentally aware. This suggests that citizen science volunteers are somewhat self-selected and likely already behave as good environmental citizens with regard to personal practices like recycling, limiting car use, etc. Their knowledge of birds in particular, however, did increase – which might suggest that a different metric of personal behavior specific to birds might be needed. Similar results are documented in a group of invasive plant monitors, who showed increased knowledge of invasive species, but not the scientific process overall or in participation in invasive removal or prevention personal behaviors. So depending on the topic and experiences in the typical volunteer, there may be very different levels of empowerment to personal stewardship.
Cooperative Extension: science to community development
“The advanced research and educational technologies we support empower people and communities to solve problems and improve their lives on the local level” – program description
Cooperative extension is based on a partnership research model that aims to advance agriculture and rural communities through the knowledge and technological developments science can deliver. While individual efforts vary in their degree of participation, cooperative extension is based upon applied research tested in real fields and by local knowledge holders. It routinely meets its goals of supporting rural quality of life through creating new marketing opportunties, safer and more efficient farm practices, and promoting rural health and livelihoods through programs like 4H. The Journal of Extension provides a number of documented successes all over the US, such as providing helpful direction for county economic development.
This goal was first summarized by Francis Bacon in the phrase “knowledge is power”. In this case, the knowledge and community capacity produced through organized citizen science provides a platform for positive development in the community. This is the one kind of empowerment that is consistently surrounded by optimism and postive evidence, especially from community health efforts. For other successful examples, Appalachian Citizens Enforcement water testers hold coal companies responsible for their effluent through EPA reporting and related lawsuits based on water monitoring data. The “bucket brigades” supported by the Global Community Monitor have also supported enforcement of offending industries, like Chevron in Richmond, CA through existing clean air legislation.
Overall: the verdict is still out
There are promising cases that highlight the potential for citizen science to develop many kinds of empowerment. There are few meta-analyses or program evaluations published, however, that provide broader scope for how common or difficult these links may be to forge. Therefore, while this ‘myth’ may not be busted, programs should exercise caution in promising empowerment – and when they do, be specific as to which kinds of empowerment they are working towards.