As Scientists Struggle with Rollbacks, Stay At Home Orders and Funding Cuts, Citizens Fill the Gap

Citizen science sees a boom in participation by people motivated by cuts of environmental protections and Covid-19 impacts on data gathering and justice.

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Liam McGrath, a Manhattan College student and citizen scientist with Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, dips a water quality probe into Tibbetts Brook. Credit: Maddie Kornfeld
Liam McGrath, a Manhattan College student and citizen scientist with Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, dips a water quality probe into Tibbetts Brook in Yonkers, New York. Credit: Maddie Kornfeld/InsideClimate News

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One was a retired school teacher, another a member of the local Genealogical Society and a third an avid scuba diver. But when they and seven other California residents met over Zoom on a recent June evening, they were scientists studying air quality. 

These “citizen” scientists are part of a community program with Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a wetlands restoration organization in Huntington Beach, California. They are also part of a growing number of Americans who are volunteering to assist environmental scientists in their work.

In the last few months, online citizen science platforms have seen a boom in participation. Researchers who collaborate with volunteers cite several reasons for the uptick.

Stay-at-home orders have hindered data collection for many field scientists, creating a need for crowd-sourced data. Many participants in citizen science initiatives are looking for ways to fill their time while homebound or furloughed from their jobs because of the pandemic.

Others have been roused to fill the void left by cuts to environmental monitoring programs or to document the impact of the federal government’s rollbacks of environmental protections. And barriers to public participation in science have fallen, thanks to low-cost equipment and apps that allow people to record and share their scientific observations.

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Proponents of citizen science say community-based water and air monitoring is increasingly giving people the tools they need to identify issues and advocate for change in the face of environmental racism and relaxed pollution enforcement during Covid-19.

“There isn’t enough environmental monitoring to begin with, and it will only decrease,” said Eli Dueker, a professor of environmental and urban studies at Bard College. “So what we end up with is community scientists often working with research scientists to fill that gap. And that can be really effective because it allows communities to know the pollution hot spots with both air and water.” 

The volunteers on the June Zoom call with Amigos de Bolsa Chica ranged from undergraduate and community college students to retirees. They had varying levels of exposure to science, but shared a common interest in environmental conservation and a desire to fill in gaps in research. From their boxes on the computer screen, they asked detailed questions about the design of the study that will have them helping to measure the amount of fossil fuels burned during the pandemic, and suggested organizations and people across the state to bring on board. 

One of the study’s leaders, Dr. Claudia Czimczik of the University of California, Irvine, walked the group through the goals of the pilot study, which is co-lead by Dr. Francesca Hopkins at the University of California, Riverside. They are using carbon isotopes in winter grasses to measure changes in air quality during the stay-at-home order. The growing season for winter grasses in California is nearing an end, and samples will need to be collected quickly and, if possible, from different parts of California, Czimczik told the group. 

“It’s amazing if you can help us with this,” she said. 

Jerry Donohue, the retired science teacher who was on the call, said, “Citizen science is more crucial than ever.” Donohue has been involved with citizen science projects for about 10 years. Over time, he noticed budget cuts to government agencies and a dwindling reliance on science in policy making. Now, he said, he worries about the impact of the Covid-19 economic slowdown on research.

“The timing is good to get people involved in citizen science,” Donohue said. “There’s all this pent-up energy to do something and that something could be getting outside and doing some kind of research.”

The Growing Appetite for Crowdsourced Data

The pandemic has hindered the work of many university labs as school programs have moved to remote platforms, leaving scientists with pared-down teams or unable to travel to do fieldwork. While some citizen science projects have been paused due to Covid-19, advocates say that this could be an opportunity for more professional scientists to collaborate with the public to crowdsource data. 

Joana Flor Tavares, a marine scientist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine, saw an opportunity to engage community members when she learned of Czimczik’s air quality study. She posted on a public citizen science Facebook page, and reached out to the amateur researchers she leads through her work with Amigos de Bolsa Chica. 

This methodology is not new,” Tavares said about the isotopic analysis that will be used in the study, “but Covid-19 gave us an opportunity to apply that methodology in an innovative way using citizen science.”

The researchers hope to combine the data from the winter grasses with traffic and electricity data, as well as data on atmospheric carbon concentrations from a mobile laboratory and instruments on the rooftop of UC Irvine that continuously monitor air. 

Getting samples from all over California will paint a fuller picture of air quality during the stay-at-home order, Tavares said. Participation from the public should yield a larger sample size than if graduate students went out to collect grasses, and provide the data more quickly. 

Advances in citizen science phone apps and online platforms are coinciding with this increased hunger for crowdsourced data.

Christine Ward-Paige, a marine researcher and founder of eOceans, an online platform for marine citizen science, developed a project called “Our Ocean in Covid-19.” By downloading the eOceans app, people can keep “logs” of ocean activity and marine life to share with scientists worldwide. 

“I started hearing from my science friends and colleagues around the world who can’t get out to their field sites,”  Ward-Paige said, “but they can see rapid changes in fishing and ecology,”

Calvin Cupini, program manager of AirKeepers, installs a PM 2.5 sensor at the headquarters of REACH, an organization fighting hog farm pollution. Courtesy of Calvin Cupini
Calvin Cupini, program manager of AirKeepers, installs a PM 2.5 sensor at the headquarters of REACH, an organization fighting hog farm pollution in Duplin County, North Carolina. Courtesy of Calvin Cupini

Scientists can use the observations sent to them by the eOceans app to help understand the impact of Covid-19 on oceans and coastal communities. One particular area of focus is studying how the lack of human activity and noise on beaches is allowing marine animals to come to habitats that are usually occupied by humans. 

There are examples of these sightings posted on the project’s Facebook page. One post from early June showed a photo of a sawfish in Turquoise Bay in Australia. “Normally one of the most packed beaches here filled with tourists,” the caption read, “sightings of them are rare here on the reef.” 

Ward-Paige said scientists have already noticed different patterns in animal behavior, the recovery of seagrass and even increases in fishing activity in countries where people usually rely on dive tourism for income. 

“Scientists can only survey a small portion of the world’s oceans. We go and do fieldwork in a set period of time, but other people are there all the time,” said Ward-Paige, who added that while citizen science is always important, it is especially crucial during a time with fewer scientists able to work in the field.

But it’s not just members of the public who are willing to go outside to do field work that are pitching in. Scientists have large bodies of data to analyze, and using online platforms and digital tools, citizen scientists can help them sift through it without ever leaving home.

Multiple Factors Increase Engagement 

The opportunity for the public to do science, from either an online platform or in areas near their homes, has given people housebound by Covid-19 a way to engage in environmental stewardship and research. 

Zooniverse, a platform for “people-powered” research, has seen a huge uptick in participation since the start of the pandemic, according to Laura Trouille, a co-leader of the site and vice president of citizen science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. There are more than two million registered participants around the world contributing to the platform’s 100 active projects, which range from climate and environment research to social science.

Trouille said during Covid-19, Zooniverse has seen a surge of three to five times the typical traffic on the platform. Darlene Cavalier, founder of a citizen science site called SciStarter, has also seen an increase in participation since the pandemic began. While there was a lot of effort to engage people during “citizen science month” in April, Cavalier also thinks the increased interest was partly because many people were looking for ways to contribute their time to science while confined to their homes. And she has seen heightened concern for environmental issues translate into a desire to participate in research. 

While projects that require regular monitoring of specific sites may have suffered from inattention as a result of the stay-at-home orders, Cavalier sees a real opportunity for citizen science projects that don’t require traveling very far or gathering in groups. 

“I think there’s such an increase in other forms of citizen science where suddenly they’re getting data from people’s backyards or their immediate locations in ways they hadn’t before,” she said.  

During Covid-19, Cavalier said she has seen more interest in projects that involve identifying and observing birds and in environmental health efforts such as the debris tracker project, through which volunteers can report litter in the ocean. A few projects directly related to the coronavirus have also been popular, including a computer game called Foldit that allows players to help researchers design antiviral proteins to fight diseases, including Covid-19. 

“There’s just so much data and now you have people who are willing to sift through it and look for cool things,” she said.  

Programs that involve conducting water testing in groups have had to either pause or pivot to obey social distancing guidelines and the capacity of labs to run samples. But many of these programs have made adjustments, said Kris Stepenuck, an extension assistant professor of watershed science, policy and education at the University of Vermont. 

During two webinars Stepenuck hosted in April for volunteers and program directors from water monitoring groups, 70 percent said their programs have already implemented some kind of Covid-related modifications. Only about 15 percent of the programs had canceled their full monitoring season. While some programs reported losing volunteers and taking budget hits, Stepenuck said the results of the survey overall showed that many programs are continuing to monitor water quality. 

During the 2008 financial crisis, Stepenuck managed a volunteer monitoring program in Wisconsin, where she saw a swell in public participation in tracking water quality. She attributes this to factors that now are once again at play: people were out of work, and were concerned about assaults on environmental law and funding for water quality monitoring. 

“That could happen again now,” she said, noting that the ability to identify issues caused by cuts to environmental protections provides people an avenue to advocate for change.

“Especially if there’s the capacity of the people to understand how to do environmental monitoring, there’s definitely opportunity for that,” she said. 

Crowdsourcing Calls for Environmental Justice 

As low-cost monitoring equipment becomes more precise and accessible, people can use data to alert local governments to pollution hot spots in their neighborhoods, said LeRoy Paddock, the associate dean for environmental law studies at George Washington University Law School. But he cautioned that citizen science data has to meet certain quality standards to be used by policymakers or as the basis of an enforcement action. 

“If you want to use that data for more than just alerting the government of an issue, then you have to look very carefully at how that data is gathered and the quality of that data, in order for it to be used in some higher level decision-making,” Paddock said. 

Some government agencies have developed procedures to use volunteer data in regulatory decision-making, said George Wyeth, a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute. Certain agencies set research guidelines and quality assurance plans for community groups that are doing environmental monitoring. This collaboration between agencies and organizations of citizen scientists has been especially successful in water quality monitoring, Wyeth said, although that varies from state to state. 

In some states, volunteers can sample bodies of water to help government agencies determine which are compromised. Virginia offers guidance and quality assurance plans to make sure that volunteer water data collection meets agency standards, and has a law to encourage use of volunteer monitoring data. Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management created an external data framework to help ensure reliable and quality data from grassroots groups, universities and organizations that are doing water monitoring. 

While citizen scientists can’t make up for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rollbacks of enforcement, they can help track industry releases of pollutants, for instance by monitoring water downstream from a facility’s discharge point, Wyeth said.

“It’s not as simple as ‘citizens can be private inspectors,’’’ said Wyeth. “But in the absence of inspectors, you can have people who at least detect problems. That’s a situation where having people in the field collecting data could be critical.” 

The collaboration between citizen science groups and government agencies has broken the monopoly on environmental data, said Calvin Cupini, a program manager at an environmental nonprofit called Clean Air Carolina. The growing availability of less expensive monitoring tools has contributed to that shift. 

Through a program called AirKeepers, Cupini and a group of citizen scientists run a network of air sensors that collect real-time data on particulate matter in almost every county in North Carolina, and have been able to continue to collect air quality data throughout the course of the pandemic. They use PurpleAir Sensors that cost from $179 to $259—significantly less than the regulatory-grade air monitors used by North Carolina’s environmental agency, which range in price from $75,000 to $200,000. 

An AirKeepers PM 2.5 sensor, placed at a government office in Raleigh, North Carolina, which reports real-time data over wifi. Courtesy of Calvin Cupini
An AirKeepers PM 2.5 sensor, placed at a government office in Raleigh, North Carolina, which reports real-time data over wifi. Courtesy of Calvin Cupini

There are 23 monitors of fine particle pollution—known as PM 2.5—throughout North Carolina that provide real-time data on an hourly basis, said Zaynab Nasif, a public information officer for the state’s environmental agency. Cupini doesn’t think that is enough to collect the hyperlocal data on air quality that can provide a fuller picture of particulate pollution in certain neighborhoods. 

Using air quality sensors, AirKeepers measured and compared PM 2.5 data among five areas of Charlotte, including the Historic West End, a Black community that has experienced a long history of pollution from industrial zoning and highway construction. The data showed that the district had more occasions with high concentrations of the harmful pollutant than the other districts. The citizen-collected air quality data and community advocacy led to the implementation of a government air monitoring station in the neighborhood. 

The impact of environmental inequalities on air quality in the Historic West End is not an anomaly. EPA research has shown that low-income populations and communities of color shoulder the burden of polluting industries. This is a reality with deep historical roots that are being laid bare in the current protests against systemic racism and police violence, as well as by citizen scientists.

The recent decision of the EPA to diminish enforcement of environmental laws is “a written prescription for pollution,” Cupini said. It can be difficult for communities to enter conversations about pollution caused by facilities in their own backyards, because they may not have data or evidence to support their concerns. Citizen science, however, “can quantify community concerns,” he said, and help bridge the distance between public conversation and regulatory decisions. 

“If the intention was to gain a runway for polluters to do what they want, polluters and their advocates in government have yet to realize how much power low-cost monitoring brings to the table,” said Mark Dixon, a filmmaker and citizen scientist. 

Dixon has long been involved with air quality monitoring in Pittsburgh, and uses the “Smell Pittsburgh” app to add to a body of crowdsourced air pollution reports. The app allows people to report noxious odors, often indicative of pollution, to the Allegheny County Health Department. 

“In the past, even if residents were being wronged by industries, they didn’t have the proof to show it,” said Dixon. “Now, they do.”

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