This article was written and submitted by Alert Bay resident and Green Party member David Faren. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Democracy and Citizen Science – by David Faren
Recently, the Prime Minister of Canada, in an act demonstrative of his disdain for democracy, declared he would not participate in the televised leadership debate. Democracy is, however, alive and well in Canada as the acts of many of us demonstrate. And I am not just talking about getting involved during elections or going to the polling station on election day. Democracy, for me, is about having a voice and a hand in building our communities and this country. Anybody giving time to make their community a better place is demonstrating their love for democracy.
It could be organizing a community garden, coaching a community soccer team, volunteering at a library, or helping raise awareness of an important issue. Recently, it occurred to me that one of those activities was doing volunteer science work. These unpaid, amateur scientists engage in a variety of activities such as recording bird sightings, collecting water samples, or monitoring cetaceans. Frequently participants in these activities are referred to as citizen scientists. There is a growing trend for more volunteers and volunteer groups to be engaged in citizen science and the nature of the work is shifting. More citizen scientists are doing more than just collecting samples at the request of a professional scientist in an institutional lab. Increasingly, citizen scientists are designing their own research and seeing the research through to the dissemination of what was learned. [i], [ii]
Citizen science is an apt name. A few definitions for “citizen” are available. Oxford defines a citizen as a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth, either native or naturalized. Collins and Merriam Webster define the word similarly, but this definition does not capture the meaning I am suggesting. Merriam Webster also provides a second definition that I would modify only slightly. The second definition states a citizen is a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it. Personally, I would ditch “government” for a more inclusive term, planet. A citizen is someone who owes allegiance to and protection from this planet. After all, it takes an entire planet to raise humanity. (I think it should read entitled to its protection otherwise it sounds like the government or planet is attacking us and we need protection)
Publicly funded environmental science in Canada has been heavily censored for many years under the current government. These individuals, whose function it is to monitor the environment that we eat, breath, drink, and generally live in, in order to protect our health the health of future generations, are being silenced. The extremity of the censorship is such that it was compared to the activities of the Bush administration in the New York Times, and Canada fared poorly in the comparison (link).[iii] The discussion of science censorship in Macleans (link)[iv] makes clear the centrality of different visions of democracy in Canada.
In the Macleans’ article, Andrew Leach argues that scientific evidence is only one part of the evidence used to determine government policy and should not be given preferential treatment by un-muzzling its practitioners. Facts from other sources such as “economists, sociologists, statisticians, and engineers” need to be considered before decisions are made. As Leach correctly points out, science is not normative and does not tell us what we should do, only the likely consequences. I agree. The real question is not, however, what ingredients are included in the decision, but whether the ingredients should be on the label.
Is he suggesting we can’t un-muzzle those doing “hard” science because the other areas of research such as economics should also be kept veiled? Leach uses a humorous example to demonstrate how “leaking” a one sided set of economics facts would potentially harm the ecosystem by shifting public opinion in favour of industry. The problem is that the views of industry are already present in the media and allowing the views of environmental scientists has a balancing rather than a skewing effect. Suppression of publicly funded science is one reason why I have come view citizen science, as a growing movement, something that can enhance democracy in spite of anti-democratic actions taken by our governments.
Citizen science isn’t without obstacles and suppressing actions. The fear of citizens having a voice and stake in their future prompted one government close to home to make citizen science illegal. Wyoming recently made “unauthorized” data collection illegal punishable by up to a year in jail. The bill is called the Data Process Bill and is designed to make it illegal to “collect resource data from any land outside city boundaries.” (link)[v], (link)[vi] The bill is written in broad enough terms that taking photos could yield an arrest.
Closer to home a biologist, who has met with industry and government resistance, recently met with some legal success. Alexandra Morton is an exceptional local example of citizen science. Without reliable funding she has both published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and dedicated nearly three decades to monitoring the health of the ecosystems around fish farms. Examining the effects of farmed salmon is controversial. In this case, like many, citizen science has political and economic dimensions. Some economic interests benefit from fish farms and others are negatively impacted. Recently Morton won a court case highlighting a more political dimension.
Publicly presenting scientific evidence in support of a claim of environmental degradation is not sufficient to persuade regulators to act. The actions of these regulatory agencies need to be challenged in court. In this case Morton’s work provided support for her claim the Ministry of Fish and Oceans’ aquaculture regulations were “inconsistent with the broader protective regulatory framework” as it allowed Marine Harvest to transfer smolts that were infected with piscine reovirus. (link)[vii] Regulations were set up to benefit a business activity at the expense of environmental health and contrary to existing regulations already designed to benefit everyone.
Citizen science isn’t always controversial, even when environmental monitoring is at issue. A group in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) called Citizen Scientists (link)[viii] is a great example of a flourishing community science initiative. They describe themselves as a “not-for-profit group that focuses on ecological monitoring, environmental training and education.” Operating since 2001, they focus on the local watersheds.
Streamkeepers are another example of a citizen science groups that concentrates on watershed health. The Pacific Streamkeepers Federation (PskF) (link)[ix] is a non-profit organization that links together various volunteer driven streamkeeper groups around BC and the Yukon. PSkF supports the various organizations primarily by providing a collective voice for shared interests and providing a platform for enhancing volunteer activities. They do this by facilitating training and cooperation between groups as well as providing a medium for communication among groups.
Global initiatives exist too since ecosystems are not constrained by political boundaries. Wikipedia lists many organizations.(link)[x] An important citizen science initiative for Canada is Global Forest Watch (GFW),(link)[xi] a project of World Resources Institute. (link)[xii] Operating since 1997, GFW launched a program where deforestation can be monitored in “near real time.” The program is designed to be interactive and allow input from local areas as well as help consumers make better informed choices. In that way it is a type of extra labelling program.
Citizen science is much more than just environmental monitoring. It is educational too. The citizen science group in the GTA emphasizes that aspect. It can and should be fun and engaging for children or anyone else who wants to learn. Another group found online, the California Academy of Science (CAS) through their website, iNaturalist.org , is designed for just that. Unlike some of the other citizen science groups mentioned, iNaturalist is a resource for people to share data on wildlife in their area. CAS also initiates citizen science projects designed to monitor and protect biodiversity. (link)[xiii]
Communities should embrace this kind of activity not just for its valuable contribution to ecosystem monitoring, but for all the other benefits. The educational component is huge. It can be built around all kinds of community projects. A community garden can be thought of as citizen science where community members of all ages can come and learn about the natural world we eat, drink, breath, and live in. Creating a local interpretive centre to inform locals and visitors about the ecosystem brings citizen science to a wide range of people. Of course volunteering or contributing financially to groups engaged in long term monitoring projects is another great way to get involved. Not only is it good for the community, it is democracy-building too.
[i] Silvertown, Jonathan. “A new dawn for citizen science.” Trends in ecology & evolution 24.9 (2009): 467-471.
[ii] Conrad, Cathy C., and Krista G. Hilchey. “A review of citizen science and community-based environmental monitoring: issues and opportunities.”Environmental monitoring and assessment 176.1-4 (2011): 273-291.
[viii] Citizen Scientists http://www.citizenscientists.ca/Citizen_Scientists.html