Highlights from the European Citizen Science Association Conference (ECSA) 2024 - Earthwatch

Highlights from the European Citizen Science Association Conference (ECSA) 2024

Our Director of Science and Policy, Dr Sasha Woods, shares some key insights from the ECSA conference and reflects on how citizen science projects can hold the power to influence policy.

“What is the value of science and policy to Earthwatch Europe?” This question was posed to me by Lucian Hudson, Chair of our Board of Trustees, at our last meeting.

It’s a question that I gave a lot of thought to whilst attending the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) conference in Vienna last week. ECSA is a membership and networking organisation for practitioners and researchers of citizen science.

Sasha with Lucian Hudson

Citizen science is the active involvement of non-scientists in scientific research.

The theme of this year’s ECSA conference was Change. The theme felt very relevant to the question asked by Lucian. The importance of science and policy to Earthwatch is that science – specifically our science – has the potential to impact policy: to support it, question it, and even change it.

Earthwatch works across four key impact areas: Nature in Cities, Fresh Water, Farming, and the science of citizen science. Our scientific research in each of these areas has the potential to shape policy. This was presented by a number of our researchers during the ECSA conference.

Tiny trees providing inspiration for urban planning

Earthwatch’s Citizen Science Research Manager, Dr Sophie Cowling, gave a talk on our Tiny Forest movement. A Tiny Forest consists of 600 densely-planted native tree and shrub species within urban areas. They re-connect people with nature and provide vital wildlife habitat in deprived urban areas. Sophie presented the initial findings from the first three years of citizen science data collected within Tiny Forests across our main research areas: biodiversity, carbon storage, flood management, thermal comfort and social benefits. The data were clear: Tiny Forests have a positive socio-environmental impact. The value of this data is in its potential to influence policy. It can support the inclusion of green spaces in urban planning, for example.

Community volunteers helping to plant a new Tiny Forest. Credit: Richard Hall

Reducing light pollution with the help of an app

In the same session, Dr. Christopher Kyba from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, presented his work on measuring artificial light emissions with the Nachtlichter (Night Lights) app. The aim of this research was to examine how different types of lighting change over the course of the night. What fraction of advertising lighting (signs and shop windows) are turned off late at night, and how does this change in lighting relate to changes in the number of pedestrians on the street? These data provide evidence for decision-makers developing policies for urban lighting, and could play a vital role in reducing light pollution. Christopher was keen to point out that the “Time for the Night” campaign was a science project, not an activist project, but that the data the science generated could be used for activism and advocacy.

Freshwater citizen science and the power of data standardisation

Our FreshWater Watch data is similar. FreshWater Watch is a global citizen science initiative where communities are trained to monitor and protect their local rivers, lakes and other freshwater bodies. Over the last decade, our citizen scientists have collected over 40,000 data points using our simple water testing kits. This holds immense promise for enhancing our understanding of the health of our waters, and informing policies around conservation and mitigation efforts.

However, a lack of standardisation is stopping citizen science and its generated data from reaching its full potential. Earthwatch’s Senior Research Lead for Fresh Water, Dr Steven Loiselle, led a workshop on behalf of the EU-funded project, OTTERS, to explore and co-create opportunities for standardising citizen science approaches and data. This will make it a more powerful tool citizen scientists can use to advocate for their local waterbodies. OTTERS is one of many EU-funded projects helping citizen science to reach its full potential.

Citizen scientists using our FreshWater Watch water testing kits to detect nutrient pollution. Credit: River Action & Maureen McLean Photography

Other innovative citizen science projects

More4nature – a project in which Earthwatch partners – was presented at ECSA with a poster by coordinator Dr Uta Wehn from the IHE Delft. The project aims to trigger transformative change in conservation efforts across the areas of zero pollution, biodiversity protection and deforestation prevention by including citizens and communities as key actors in collaborative environmental compliance assurance; i.e. policy promotion, policy monitoring and policy enforcement. Meanwhile, the new CROPS project supports the transition of citizen science from a small-scale to a Europe-wide level, moving it towards a modern, open-science approach. CROPS’s Principal Investigator, Earthwatch’s Senior Citizen Science Researcher, Dr James Sprinks, led a workshop on co-designing CROPS communities for up-scaling citizen science actions. As James states in the CROPS Press Release, “CROPS will help focus the growing European citizen science community and its actions towards the five EU missions, including clean water, soil health, and adapting to climate change – through connecting people with nature, and engaging communities to support their environment and make change happen”.

So what is the value of science and policy to Earthwatch Europe?

The value of policy is that it shapes the world we live in. The value of science is that it has the power to evidence policy and influence it to create a better world, one in which people and nature are connected. And to Earthwatch, that’s everything.

Sasha and members of our Science Team at the ECSA conference 2024

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At a glance

Sasha Woods is Earthwatch’s Director of Science & Policy. Despite a background focused on human biology, Sasha moved into socio-environmental science in response to the climate and biodiversity challenges. She now uses her investigative and analytical skills to forward citizen science. Sasha coordinates Earthwatch’s efforts in More4Nature, leading a work package supporting the 20 pioneer cases including two FreshWater Watch cases, one in Sierra Leone and one in Italy.

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