Summary Citizen science

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Summary Citizen science

Summary Citizen science is exploding in popularity all around the world. And for good reason! It’s fun, it illuminates mysteries, and it makes it possible for everyone to experience real research.

The World Economic Forum (January, 2021) makes it abundantly clear that there can be no sustainable economic growth on a sick earth. All forms of developments depend on healthy natural ecosystems and the services they provide. It is unfortunate that globally, we continue to lose habitats, species, experience worsening pollution. These conditions are made worse by limited practical interventions on climate change mainly by rich nations who benefitted from burning fossil fuels (Kate Raworth, 2018 and Webinar-Feb 2021, can doughnut economics help us recover from the COVID:19). The most apparent concern globally is the dwindling water resource quality and quantity data. This is clearly marked in the SDG:2030 report published in 2021. Indeed, this desperate situation is mentioned in the National State of Water Resources of South Africa published by the Department of Water and Sanitation in 2021.

On the other hand, nationally and internationally, there is an increase in ecosystem degradation, hence the additional call by the UN to secure and implement restoration of these ecosystems within a decade from today, 2030. This emphasis is re-enforcing restoration calls already listed under several SDG: 2030 Goals. In the light of data gaps the UN has made a call to member states to seriously consider supporting citizen science data and information generation and, where possible, align this with mandatory monitoring for quality control and assurance. It is also well acknowledged that trained citizen scientists (CS) collect far more data than mandated organisations in space and time. It is therefore a service that is hugely underutilised. Various attempts have been made by countries, including South Africa, to secure the validity and acceptance of the CS data by researchers and policy. To gain policy support, the WRC and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) committed to jointly fund a project in which one objective is to produce a state of water resources using CS data.

Other initiatives include streamlining CS data and information into policy decision-making; develop quality control mechanisms, recommend sustainable CS network, engage more youth as future leaders, explore entrepreneurship opportunities, and use of technology and social media in water resources monitoring. UNEP (2021) is equally committed to supporting CS development and its strengthening across the global communities, especially member states. This working paper is exploring the real CS as opposed to survey, action research and other short-term related efforts. This is critical to reach consensus on. Secondly, we unpack the barriers and enablers to a flourishing CS and lastly the uptake by policy. Introduction Citizen science is not a new concept. In fact, the first formal use of the term "citizen scientist" can be found in the magazine New Scientist, October 1979. Prior to this time, it was an informal exercise driven by passion, particularly photographers. Citizen science (CS) is sometimes described as public participation in scientific research, participatory monitoring, or participatory action research whose outcomes are often advancements in scientific research by improving the scientific community's capacity, as well as increasing the public's understanding of science. In abbreviated form, it’s also referred to as community science, crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, or volunteer monitoring. It is a scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur scientists or ordinary citizens often in collaboration with scientific research led by experts, (Wikipedia). It is very important to differentiate between CS and once off survey or even the action research where scientists utilize individual community members (or groups) to collect data for the benefit of the research study and duration.

This has short time equal to that of the study, beyond that there is no sustainability built in, tested indicators, common vision. Globally and indeed in the country there is a rapid decline in data collection by the mandated organizations with serious impacts on informed policy development, natural resources management as well as predictions/modelling. According to the recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, 2021) on Ambient Water Quality very few countries collect/or submit data. A clear message is evident from both the 2017 and 2020 data drives that the capacity to monitor is much less, particularly in low-income countries. In many of these countries, water-quality data are not routinely collected, meaning that over 3 billion people could be at risk because the health status of their freshwater ecosystems is unknown. Without monitoring, there is an information gap on the current health of aquatic ecosystems and no baseline against which to measure future change. This means that health and livelihoods, which are dependent on the services provided by these ecosystems, are at significant risk if the ecosystems are not able to continue to provide services such as clean water to drink and fish for livelihood. The situation with groundwater is dire. Of the 89 countries with data available, only 50 have information about groundwater. This is particularly problematic when considering that groundwater often represents the largest share of freshwater in a country. An understanding of the hydrogeological environment, the pressures on these resources, and how to monitor them effectively is lacking in many countries.

The World Economic Forum in its listed risks (2021) continues to report water crisis, biodiversity, in-action on climate change as some of the top priorities facing the humankind and it is getting worse. Protection is easier than restoration, so efforts to protect these water bodies must begin as a matter of urgency (UNEP, 2021). In South Africa, all water resource types are threatened well beyond 65% due to various sources of pollution (NBA, 2019), see Figure 1 below. To add to the dire situation is the spread of highly thirsty alien and invasive plants and impacts of climate change, as reflected in the frequency of droughts. All these threaten water security, which is key in job creation, especially in developing countries. Citizen scientists’ role is midway between the general public and scientific research community, which puts citizens in a position to close the chasm between these two, as well as policy and politicians. “From the Second International Handbook of Science Education, a chapter entitled: "Citizen Science, Ecojustice, and Science Education: Rethinking an Education from Nowhere" by Mueller and Tippins (2011), notes that: "There is an emerging emphasis in science education on engaging youth in citizen science." The authors also ask: "whether citizen science goes further with respect to citizen development." The article ends by stating that the "chapter takes account of the ways educators will collaborate with members of the community to effectively guide decisions, which offers promise for sharing a responsibility for democratizing science with others”. Managing rivers, wetlands, estuaries and ground water is obviously a task way beyond officials in any state, hence the unavoidable call for citizens’ involvement.