Citizen science: A new path to citizen engagement and evidence-based policy


Student_Logo4Evidence-based policy is seen as a key factor in formulating successful policies. In recent years interest for more evidence-based policy has increased but the capacity of governments to pursue this approach has proven to be low (Howlett, 2009). A variety of opinions exist on how best to address the evidence-based policy policy gap and have been discussed extensively by members of the Environmental Information: Use and Influence research team and elsewhere. A central theme in this debate is who is responsible for disseminating the information needed for policy development: are scientists responsible for translating their work to a form useable by policy makers or are policy makers responsible for accessing and understanding the information they need? Ultimately, fundamental communication differences between scientists and policy makers make it difficult for useful information to flow form one to the other (Choi et al., 2005). A new, although less investigated, approach to addressing the communication gap in the science-policy interface is the citizen science movement.

A citizen scientist is defined as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” and the use of citizen science is prevalent in the biological and environmental sciences (Silvertown, 2009). Citizen scientists have proven their utility by being able to gather high volumes of data over large spatial scales and time periods. Today, citizen science projects have expanded beyond ecology and include public involvement in structural biology, astronomy, and many others, which can be further explored on the Scientific American Citizen Science Web page.

More promising than the growth of the citizen science movement is the increasing number of projects with positive impacts. In the African Sahel, villagers participating in the Meningitis Weather Project observe weather patterns in order to predict the onset of the rainy season (Rosner, 2013). During this season, the risk of meningitis is significantly reduced and vaccinations for the disease are no longer necessary thus prolonging the vaccine stock. In the United Kingdom, the University College London’s new Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) program helped citizens gather noise samples in order to aid in creating noise regulations for a neighborhood scrap yard (Rosner, 2013). Citizen science projects have also has impacts on land use planning and habitat conservation (Cohn, 2008; Cooper 2007; Rosner, 2013).

In one way, citizen scientists bridge the science-policy gap by providing the information needed for policy change. Case studies have also revealed that increased scientific literacy amongst citizen scientists leads to greater understanding of particular sciences and also allows for understanding the scientific method and development of critical thinking skills (Cooper et al., 2007; Rosner, 2013). In turn, scientists benefit as the public becomes more aware and supportive of scientific research. Completing this positive feedback loop, a better-educated and empowered public is more capable of providing information for understanding and advancing evidence based policy.

In a democratic society, the goal of a policy is to act upon the wants and needs of the public, but several deterrents exist to prevent meaningful citizen engagement in policymaking. Citizen science addresses issues of citizen disengagement in two important ways: by empowering citizens and even marginalized groups with knowledge, and allowing people to experience positive changes as a results of their actions, whether it be policy change or their name in the acknowledgements section of a published paper (Bonetta 2009; Wiederhold, 2011). Through education and empowerment of the public, the citizen science movement has demonstrated its ability to influence policy and should be explored as a new avenue for bridging the communication gap in the science-policy interface.


Bonetta, L. (2009). New citizens for the life sciences. Cell, 138, 1043-1045. DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2009.09.007

Choi, B. C. K., Pang, T., Lin, V., Puska, P., Sherman, G., Goddard, M.,…Clottey, C. (2005). Can scientists and policy makers work together? The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 9, 632–637. doi: 10.1136/jech.2004.031765

Cohn, J. P. (2008). Citizen science: Can volunteers do real research? Bioscience, 58(3), 192-197

Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Phillips, T., & Bonney, R. (2007). Citizen science as a tool for conservation in residential ecosystems. Ecology and Society, 12(2), 11

Howlett, M. (2009). Policy analytical capacity and evidence-based policy-making: Lessons from Canada. Canadian Public Administration, 52(2), 153-175.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1754-7121.2009.00070_1.x

Rosner, H. (2013). Data on wings. Scientific American, 308, 68-73 

Silvertown, J. (2009). A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 24(9), 467-471, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.017

Wiederhold, B.K. (2011). Citizen scientists generate benefits for researchers, educators, society and themselves. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 703. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2011.1534

Author: Vanja Avdić

This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the new graduate course, “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.


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