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Citizen Science and Research: Its role and importance in tackling environmental issues in India.




Citizen science has emerged as a tool for community participation in the scientific research community thus, breaking the barriers between academia and society. It creates a space for citizens to engage in productive ways through scientific research to bring responsible and visionary changes to both – their social and environmental well-being. Citizen science has been growing in India with its impact being seen in the restoration and revitalisation of archipelago islands in Lakshadweep, thereby filling in the gaps of knowledge in wildlife sanctuaries and reserves, and many such interventions. In creating a synergy between the various stakeholders that are responsible for a particular community, this innovative research method creates a space for democratising knowledge. It brings down top-down models that do not include the agency of the community nor the applicability of resources for the said community. Through this intervention, scientific and social communities, can work towards a common goal and create bespoke and practical solutions to their environmental and societal issues, culminating from a 2-way exchange of ideas, understandings, and inclusivity. This paper explores the role this stream of research and problem-solving plays in the restoration and rejuvenation of the ecosystem and environment of the country’s various regions, while also addressing the community’s social problems.


Introduction

The role of citizen science in the realm of scientific research and data collection is one that was not previously heard of. It is, however, receiving a lot of attention and is gaining popularity across the globe for its inclusive, bottom-up, and decentralised take on data collection and research. The goal of citizen science interventions is to harness the resources of the society and the scientific community together, thus, creating a research model and data set that is accessible to both. This would not only increase the pool of resources available to the scientists but also involve members of the society to participate in the local technological and ecological development. It will also enhance the quality of innovations that reach the ground and make them better suited to the requirements of the people who will be using them. Many Indian environmental organisations, biodiversity institutions, and NGOs are making use of the power of citizen scientists and encouraging their role in research outcomes. The Scientific and Social Responsibility Policy, 2019 (SSR, 2019), as well as the Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, 2020, (STIP, 2020), talk about increasing decentralisation and inclusion among India’s scientific community. These policies are being introduced with the aim of integrating the scientific community with the social community and the role that both play in uplifting each other. This article will first outline what citizen science means and discuss the benefits it accrues for society and the scientific community. Then, using the examples of different organisations like Earthwatch India and Dakshin Foundation that employ the ‘citizen science method’ in India, it will trace the role this method plays in the country’s environmental and biodiversity research. Finally, the article will discuss the two policies, SSR 2019 and STIP 2020, and the role that they will play in advancing India’s scientific aims and environmental impact.


Citizen Science

Citizen science is broadly defined as the participatory approach to scientific research where non-scientists, or citizens —comprising nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, environmentally conscious, and scientifically curious people— play an important role in developing research projects and databases by contributing to data collection, observations, and peer reviews. The core of citizen science lies in the democratisation of scientific knowledge. Democratisation refers to the creation of institutions and systems that ensure transparency, accountability, and accessibility, in this case, the scientific community’s research and methods (Issues). The citizens are also able to responsibly contribute and participate in technological innovations and knowledge repositories that will indirectly or directly impact their daily lives. They are also able to work on projects that allow them to fulfil their passion for gaining a deeper understanding of their environment. Moreover, local communities, especially farmers, indigenous tribes, forest communities, and amateur scientists and astronomers, have a wealth of information that can be of great significance to the research on the environment and biodiversity that is being conducted. They enable in filling up gaps in data collection through knowledge—that has either been passed down from centuries or gained because of experience from living in a particular area—and can prove to be crucial to the development of the results of the research and contribute to knowledge production (Ryan et al.). The prevalence of citizen science is growing with increasing awareness amongst citizens for more accountable, scientific and environment-related knowledge and solutions, that are available on digital platforms. This rise in big data and data collection tools, along with digital platforms of communication has increased accessibility and has created a space for more interaction between the scientific and non-scientific communities.


Benefits


1. The gap between non-scientists and scientists is bridged by using this method. Many people peruse scientific papers and innovation outside of their work and this platform gives them the space to express and develop their interests further. As will be seen later, the scientific community also benefits from this as they can harness the potential of local groups to fill in the gaps of information in their data sets. Observations and information sent in by bird watchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and farmers all add to the value of their efforts to conserve and restore the environment and biodiversity (Johnson et al.).


2. With the growth of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), the task of connecting citizen scientists with scientists has become easier. With geotagging tools and gamification of ongoing projects, the online community is becoming a haven for networking and meeting individuals who share the same interests and knowledge sources, thus coming together in a large knowledge pool (Kumar Namdeo and Koley).


3. Filling in the gaps of research results in a nuanced and focused understanding of the issues, thus making problem-solving interventions much more targeted and effective.


4. Furthermore, the participation of citizen scientists ensures more accountability, transparency, and accessibility of research and innovation, leading to carefully addressing the needs of society. In the case of biodiversity conservation, it is seen that many indigenous species of flora and fauna have been discovered and saved because of the contributions made by citizen scientists (Rajan).


5. The use of citizen scientists also cuts down on the cost of research and allows the researchers access to a larger pool of resources, and uncharted territory that would have otherwise been inaccessible.


6. The impact of citizen science on non-scientist participants is the increase in their awareness, not only pertaining to science and data collection, but also about their environment and biodiversity. It makes them more informed citizens and being involved in community activities increases their bond with their surroundings (Tauginienė et al.).


7. Finally, as seen in the post-independence Indian ventures with Project Tiger and Project Elephant for the species’ conversation, the involvement of local groups also brings around humanitarian, social, and economic progress in the lives of those who are affected by adverse impacts on their surrounding environment (Bhuyan).



Drawbacks


Citizen science, although a growing field in collecting and collating data, comes with some challenges that need to be addressed either at policy levels or through institutional changes that need to be implemented by the scientific and social communities. Some of the drawbacks are:

1. Reliability of the quality of data: The addition of data by citizens not necessarily trained in scientific research and data collection may lead to inconsistencies and discrepancies in the data collected. Thus, it is the responsibility of scientific institutions to ensure control of the project’s transparency and quality measures to resolve this issue (Beza et al.).


2. All kinds of research may not be suitable for public participation: while observations and public participation in research is gaining momentum, not all research projects can be made accessible to the public owing to a lack of awareness amongst people regarding citizen science initiatives, or limitations of the research material that restrict public participation. Thus, guidelines for creating research models that encourage public participation could be generated and research programmes designed specifically for public collaborations (Kumar Namdeo and Koley).


3. Incentivising the research project: While many participants participate in the projects because of their interests in the subject, the issue of recognition and co-authorships can create a struggle in their willingness to participate. The incentives for participants should be created such that every member of the study is recognised, either using certificates, feedback forms, or additional training and skill development.


4. Data ownership, privacy, and accessibility: Although many projects are open-sourced and accessible, participants should be made aware of these clauses before their data is stored and shared by the institution to further the goal of creating a transparent system of knowledge dissemination (Ryan et al.).


Citizen Science in India:


In India, citizen science is gaining a lot of traction. A report by Pankaj Seksaria titled “Citizen Science in Ecology in India”, 2018, stated that there were around 25-30 citizen science projects underway. These projects involved around a few hundred to 12,000 participants in each study. The number of projects has doubled since then and continues to grow (Sharma). Many scientists and environmental NGOs, government institutions, think tanks, and biodiversity and ecosystem conservation hubs regard citizen scientists as important members of their research and data collection process. The participants range from local members of the community, high school science and social science students, amateur astronomers, farmers, indigenous communities, and anyone who shows interest in the environment and biodiversity in their community (Bhuyan). Some organisations which have effectively harnessed synergy between citizen scientists and scientists for their research and problem solving are as follows:


1. Earthwatch Institute India: It is a science-based conservation institute in India that focuses on developing scientific research and has become an inspiration in the field of community-based conservation programmes that are used to generate knowledge and brainstorm solutions. They have citizen-science programmes that cover projects on water conservation, forest and soil studies, agriculture, urban landscape, and environment amongst others. By involving local communities in their research, education, and community programmes, they have also contributed to the skill development of the people involved. Teaching about sustainable agriculture, forest conservation, organic farming, climate action and efficiency has enabled many communities to become self-sustaining and more responsible towards their environment (“Earthwatch India”).


2. Marine Mammal Research & Conservation Network of India: Created in 2008, this site is a repository of historical data on marine mammals. They aim to serve as a knowledge and information database, and a place for networking with people who are interested in marine mammal research and conservation, irrespective of their field of work. The site is a consortium of experts in marine science along with records that are submitted by those interested in marine life. Dynamic and interactive, it is a step taken by scientists and non-scientists towards creating data and identifying problems and solutions that confront the marine world in India (“Marine Mammal | Research and Conservation Network of India”).


3. India Biodiversity Portal: This portal is an open-access portal to curated, authenticated and peer-reviewed selection of information on the biodiversity of India. It encourages citizen scientists to upload their observations of species that they have sighted and help in the curation, identification, and annotation of species that have been documented. This portal provides maps, literature, and a participatory approach for all. Citizen participation and feedback fuels their database and working with scientists and experts ensure authenticity and validity of the resources that are made available (“India Biodiversity Portal”).


4. Dakshin Foundation: with the aim to understand natural resource management and disseminate information regarding the same, the non-profit NGO also works towards supporting sustainable livelihoods, social development, and environmental justice. For one of their projects, the Foundation works with local groups on the coastlines and islands of India to understand how growing industrialisation has impacted the relationship between the locals and their environment, and the social and economic strains in the region that have been born from that. Their citizen scientists work in collaboration with the scientists to brainstorm on environmental problems by addressing social, political, and systemic change at the same time (“Dakshin Foundation”).


5. Center for Citizen Science: Based in Pune, the Center for Citizen Science launched Project Meghadoot with the aim to study the phenomenon of monsoons across India. The project spans the length and breadth of the country, collecting and documenting knowledge from various tribes, cultures, languages, regions, and people to create a compilation of the traditional knowledge relating to monsoons in India, thus creating the first-ever Monsoon Encyclopaedia. With open access, this document will be an instrumental tool for various groups like researchers, farmers, policymakers, and fishermen (“Project Meghdoot – Center for Citizen Science”).


Indian policymaking and administration have also taken note of the growing need for including citizen scientists in innovation, technology, and knowledge production, leading to the formulation of two new science-related policy drafts that will include steps towards creating a space for more community participation.

Scientific Social Responsibility Policy (2019)


With the drafting of the Scientific Social Responsibility Policy (SSR), policymakers emphasise the relation between the scientific community and social conscience. The combination of scientific knowledge with leadership and vision of the social community is key to building synergy between science and society according to the policy draft’s preamble. This policy addresses the responsibility of the scientific community to include and fulfil its duties towards the stakeholders involved. The policy outlines 4 main objectives: - Science-Society connect: inculcating inclusivity and sustainable development in society through scientific research and meeting social needs. - Science-Science connect: to create a scientific community that can access and share ideas and resources across society. - Society-Science connect: collaborating with members of society to develop solutions using scientific research and innovation. - Cultural Exchange: creating more awareness in both the communities—social and scientific—about the implications of scientific research, social needs, and environmental conservation. These objectives, when effectively implemented, should be able to create space for a more interactive, accessible, transferable, and inclusive engagement between scientists and society. This will help in creating more lasting and efficient solutions for environmental, social, economic, and political changes that plague the development of the country (Rajput).

Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, 2020


The Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor and the Department of Science and Technology jointly initiated the Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, 2020 (STIP, 2020), which is the fifth National Science policy to be formed in India post-independence. With the aim of achieving the goal of “Atmanirbhar Bharat,” the policy hopes to place greater emphasis on curating indigenous knowledge, technologies, and grassroots innovations. The policy revolves around the grounds of science, technology, and innovation becoming “decentralised, evidence-informed, bottom-up, expert-driven, and inclusive” (“Release of Draft 5th National Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy for Public Consultation”). There are provisions within the document to increase participation within the social community by forming/creating institutions that are aimed towards this goal. Furthermore, there are provisions about the introduction of an interactive and engaging learning process for building interest towards the sciences in Higher Education Institutions, so that students can also be encouraged to participate and be able to actively take part in environmental and climate action for the country (“Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, 2020 | MyGov.In”). Various sections of the draft cover issues such as – building open science resources; capacity building; financing science, technology, and innovation; equity and inclusion of all groups of people irrespective of caste, religion, gender, or sexual identity; public engagement; international engagement; and science, technology, and innovation governance and policy.


Conclusion

It is the dawn of a new age for scientific research in the country with community participation gaining momentum in both, scientific and social spheres. Backed by policy action, one is hopeful that Indian scientific research and innovation can contribute in a more significant and holistic way to tackle environmental issues along with addressing social inequalities and systemic changes in the country. India is unique in its cultural and geographical diversity and is at the helm of realising the role that its population can play in harnessing their combined knowledge to become more sustainable, self-sufficient, and connected with their land’s biodiversity. The wait is only to step forward and take the necessary actions. With citizen science interventions, the country’s science and innovation community combines modern-day technology with the traditional and cultural knowledge of the local communities, thus harnessing a powerhouse of potential advancements in science and society. The scientific advancements speak volumes of the work that can be done to move towards a more sustainable future. On the other hand, lies the resolution of socio-economic problems through science, citizen participation and awareness amongst them about the environmental issues. By working together, they create a space for effective implementation of the scientific innovations to become agents of change, self-sufficiency and sustainability.



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