Can Citizen Science Drive the Sustainable Development Goals?

A new collection of articles demonstrates the potential of citizen science to measure and drive the SDGs

September 2023
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Proximate
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This September, heads of state from around the world will gather at the UN Headquarters in New York to review the implementation of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They’ll carry out a comprehensive review of the state of the goals, and provide guidance on how to accelerate action on them leading up to the target year of 2030.

It’s no secret that we’re a ways away from full progress on the goals, which range from zero hunger to vastly reduced inequality. But a new collection of academic papers in the journal journal Citizen Science: Theory and Practice argues that one path to achieving the SDGs lies in the application of citizen science – cooperation between the scientific community and members of the public who can bring their observations, intuition and passion for research to bear on the biggest public challenges facing our time.

Crowdsourcing Research

The term “citizen science” can be traced back to 1989, though the idea is much older. Advocates make the case that science should be responsive to citizens' concerns and needs; and that citizens themselves could produce reliable scientific knowledge. It’s had a renaissance over the past decade, as communications technology has allowed researchers to more easily crowdsource information and insights from concerned citizens.

Citizen Science: Theory and Practice is a peer-review journal published by the Citizen Science Association. The journal has an international lens, and focuses on the impacts and effective practices associated with public participation in scientific endeavors. Unlike some other journals, it's fully open-access, in line with the ethos of inclusion that citizen science embodies.

The journal's new collection of papers argues that citizen science can, and already has, played a key role in advancing SDGs, through two methods: monitoring progress on individual SDGs, and helping achieve specific goals.

For example, one paper highlights a citizen science project in Australia that helps monitor the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The program, called Virtual Reef Diver, asks scuba-divers to take geo-coded underwater images of the reef and upload them to an online “virtual reef”. Members of the public across the world are then asked to classify these images with respect to key reef indicators such as coral, in order to measure the health of the ecosystem. Over the course of one week in 2021, 195 volunteers identified more than 50,000 points of reference in the images.

Another paper describes a “collective intelligence” project experiment conducted during the UN Climate Change Conference 2019, which aimed to generate a prioritized list of actions addressing SDG 6 (Water and Sanitation) and SDG 13 (Climate Action). The experiment involved 1,253 teenage students who proposed, modified, and prioritized more than 14,000 ideas using an online platform.

A Call for Cooperation

In addition to the SDGS, the authors call out other frameworks where citizen science can help with monitoring and implementation - including as the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

The authors call for urgent dialogue between citizen science practitioners, researchers, and decision makers to build partnerships and work together to advance citizen science. They specifically mention the Citizen Science Global Partnership, a network of networks that plays an intermediary role.

“With this collection, we call for stronger cooperation between all citizen science actors... to help bridge the gap between the citizen science and official statistics communities and stakeholders," writes Dilek Fraisl, a researcher leading the collection. “We urge the official statistics community to consider the inclusiveness and relevance of their practices and encourage funders to reassess their strategies, to go beyond short-term pilot studies, and to provide genuine financial support to citizen science initiatives focused on monitoring and achieving sustainable development."

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