Crowdsourcing Discovery: White House Celebrates Citizen Science

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Expanding our environmental monitoring networks and empowering students to learn about science and the environment: both these elements are critical to advancing a more sustainable, healthier future for communities in the U.S. and worldwide. The annual White House Science Fair this past March gave special focus to citizen science, announcing that the Office of Science and Technology Policy will be holding a Citizen Science Forum before the end of 2015.

Citizen science, also known as crowd-sourced science, is a powerful tool for advancing environmental health and justice. While investigations by scientific professionals add necessary rigor to the analysis of environmental issues, citizens can contribute to monitoring environmental phenomena and gathering data on issues in their own communities that might not otherwise be brought into the light of discovery.

In a recent example from EPA Region 2, citizen science was used in Newark, New Jersey to monitor fine particulate air pollution from traffic. Kim Gaddy, a member of the NJ Environmental Federation, states that the study tried to “bring exposure to the fact that in the City of Newark, and most urban communities, one in four children is asthmatic.” The connections between asthma and air pollution are known in a general, global sense, but gathering concrete data at the local level can help stimulate changes to policies that directly affect community health. The White House’s Citizen Science Fact Sheet also speaks to the power of citizen science projects as “tools for providing students with skills needed to excel in science, technology, engineering and math.”

The announcement particularly highlighted efforts by the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a group that uses do-it-yourself monitoring techniques to enable communities facing environmental hazards to more effectively participate in decision making processes.  The group is committing to “putting 6,000 low-cost, accessible sensors…into the hands of community environmental researchers to enable residents to identify pollution affecting their own backyards.” New tools include a conductivity/temperature/depth sensor and an oil testing kit. Public Lab is also partnering with SciStarter, the Museum of Science Boston, and Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society to “connect citizen scientists to data collection tools” through a lending library.

In communities facing toxic pollution and exposures, a lack of both scientific attention and the resources to conduct investigations lead many problems to go unaddressed. Citizen science can help leverage the energy and ingenuity of those who have the most at stake in environmental issues, and provide the tools and frameworks necessary for advancing policy change at the local level. Public Lab and other groups are leading the charge to address environmental hazards through crowdsourcing, and the recent White House announcements are an encouraging sign of the increasing importance of citizen science on the national policy level.

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