Summary of the stage
The purpose of this stage was to investigate the current information provided by “citizen science” programs and to understand the relationships between the participating parties at the national level. The studies aimed to analyze reports, policies, scientific publications and official media content to assess the current level of water quality education and awareness (Activity 1.1). Citizen science programs were investigated to prepare an inventory of existing protocols and data quality control methods (Activity 1.2). The elements of success in the implementation and impact of citizen science programs were identified and the problems carried over from previous actions were analyzed (Activity 1.3). Also, relations between citizens and decision-makers in water management were established.
Scientific and technical description
Before science became a paid profession, scientific research was generally undertaken by citizens outside of their primary profession. However, over the past 150 years, the role of citizens in science has been marginalized, which has limited their involvement around nature clubs. In recent years, scientific researchers have recognized the value of citizens undertaking studies, at scales that cannot be achieved by professionals alone. Thus, citizen science activities were increasingly included in environmental studies.
Citizen science is defined as the involvement of non-professionals in scientific investigations – asking questions, collecting data or interpreting results. Citizen researchers can generate large volumes of temporal and spatial data, and can provide support in detecting environmental change, identifying pollution or monitoring the effectiveness of environmental management practices. In addition, citizen researchers can bring new perspectives to decision-making. Citizen science programs lead to the democratization of the environment and science in general, through the exchange of information and expertise between professional researchers and the public. Thus, these programs increase scientific literacy and public engagement in local issues. Furthermore, citizen involvement reduces costs for monitoring while expanding current databases with new ecosystems and providing early warning of pollution problems.
Citizen science actions can be initiated by professional researchers in collaboration with non-professionals or entirely by non-professionals. The level of participation varies depending on the nature of the project and can be contractual, contributory, collaborative, co-created and collegial. The contributory model is the most common form of participation. Citizen science programs can extract data from both structured and unstructured programs. Structured programs include specific monitoring and reporting tools, while unstructured programs involve information collected from social media, voluntarily provided by participants. Citizen science programs can be further classified according to the level of public participation: manipulative, passive, consultative, for material benefit, functional, interactive, self-mobilization participation. In Romania, public consultation is the highest level of citizen involvement reached by most environmental research projects. There is institutional support to move beyond this level and a general desire to improve participation, but barriers such as a lack of public education on water issues, limited public representation and poor communication between parties block citizen engagement.
VOSViewer analysis of more than 550 scientific articles extracted from the main databases (Science Direct, Springer Link, Wiley and Taylor & Francis) showed the distribution and links between the keywords included in the articles. In figure 1, it can be seen that most citizen science studies are carried out in the field of conservation, biodiversity and climate change. Water quality studies are mostly done in urban areas, where there are large volunteer communities. It can also be seen in figure 1 that the main problems mentioned in the studies are related to the lack of objectivity of the volunteers, the lack of accuracy and the low quality of the data. To ensure success, a citizen science program must fulfill the following elements: a clear definition of the objective, the involvement of political decision-makers in the project, interdisciplinary team, the involvement of a communication expert and a data expert, clear sampling protocol, collection short duration, use of digital tools for data recording and transmission, quality control, rewarding volunteers, realistic expectations.
Two sets of factors have been identified that can affect the success of citizen science programs. The first set is represented by the influence of citizens, and the second set corresponds to institutions. Citizens with previous citizen science experience may be more committed to the mission and goal of the project and require less additional training, but can help new volunteers gain confidence in completing tasks. Experienced volunteers will also have a heightened awareness of environmental issues and can bring additional information from previous projects. Citizens may join environmental projects for various reasons, including the intrinsic desire to make a difference, to create strong social networks, to gain public recognition, to acquire a new skill, to achieve something special.
Institutions may be motivated to support a citizen science project to reduce data collection costs while obtaining large volumes of data. Institutions are intrinsically motivated by the project’s goal, for example, to improve the quality of the ecosystem. Although citizen science projects can save research funds, continued and adequate funding is still needed to ensure long-term goals and impact. The success of the programs depends on the type of institution (universities, research institutes, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, private organizations) that initiates and runs the citizen science program. The type of institution shapes the vision, mission, objective and level of involvement in the project.
In addition to the factors described above, support structures and communication and feedback protocols are relational aspects of a successful citizen science project. Support structures are important for the quantity and quality of data. The level of training, the type of feedback requested from citizens, quality control and data management are critical to the success of the project. If the learning process is too abrupt, participants lose interest in the project. Another challenge relates to limited participant engagement due to excessive technical content or repetitive tasks. Citizens may also provide fragmented and inaccurate data if data quality protocols are not established. Some of these challenges can be overcome if the data is provided online, which would further reduce costs. The online environment (smartphone applications, web platforms, social networks) is an effective means of interacting with volunteers, monitoring activities, communicating news and providing feedback and support. In terms of current policies, citizen science programs can support United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 “Clean water and sanitation”, indicator 6.3.2 “proportion of aquatic systems with good quality”. In addition, the Convention on Biodiversity set as objectives “Increasing public awareness of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take for its conservation and sustainable use” (Target 1).
The European Union (EU) included the citizen science approach in the Water Framework Directive – “Public participation has always been recognized as a key component to ensure the success of the Water Framework Directive” – and in the EU Biodiversity Strategy – “Encouraging the active involvement of civil society in all levels of implementation. Recognizing the value of citizen science initiatives for collecting high-quality data while mobilizing citizens to engage in biodiversity conservation activities”. Moreover, the EU emphasized the need for continued funding under the Horizon Europe program for citizen science projects.
There are currently mechanisms for public involvement in policy consultation at EU level, and non-governmental organizations have attracted thousands of participants through various campaigns and educated them on environmental issues. In addition, numerous smartphone applications or websites have been implemented where citizens can submit environmental data. However, what is missing is the consistent involvement of local authorities and the initiative of professional researchers in the development of such programs in Romania (Fig. 2). Authorities are involved in public participation activities only in partnership with other institutions. While the involvement of researchers in citizen science activities on water quality, in Romania, is limited. Most of them are limited to key areas such as the Danube Delta or the Black Sea, where dedicated organizational structures already exist. One reason is the lack of funds for such activities, both at the level of authorities and at the level of research organizations. Researchers could be the link between policy makers, authorities and citizens, and could provide the optimal infrastructure and knowledge for all sectors. Professional researchers can collaborate with non-governmental organizations and draw on their expertise and success in engaging citizens and authorities. They could also benefit from the large pool of volunteers already involved in annual projects.
Dissemination of results
– Book chapter submitted for publication:
E.M. Cârstea, C.L. Popa, S.I. Donțu, Citizen science for the Danube River – knowledge transfer, challenges and perspectives, The Lower Danube River Hydro-environmental Issues and Sustainability, Ed. A. Negm, L. Zaharia, G.I. Toroimac, Springer Nature, 2021.
– Web page: ecomore.inoe.ro
– Twitter account: https://twitter.com/ECOMOREproject
– Facebook account: https://fb.me/ecomore.citizen.science