Citizen Science for specific policy issues

By Cléa Montanari

This is the first of a series of two blog posts about Citizen Science for policy. The information shared in these blog posts is part of context scoping for the development of policy mastercterclass for the EU-funded ACTION project. The Author joined the work during an internship at DRIFT.

Citizen Science (CS in the following) can be beneficial for policy in many ways. For example, it enables a situation or an issue to be monitored at a relatively low cost compared to traditional ways of data collection, it directly engages concerned individuals (Fritz et al., 2019; Fraisl et al., 2020) and can help change personal behaviours to address the issue (see Scheepens, 2014 for an example). Mostly, it can make policy more actionable as the individuals who are affected by the issue and may be part of the problem are engaged in creating the solution.

In order to make use of these benefits and to make CS projects possible for specific policy issues or needs, policy makers need to make sure three essential components are present in the project: a clear sense of purpose, mutual benefits, and clarity on the overall impact.

A clear sense of purpose throughout the project.

If the purpose of the project is to inform a specific policy, this must be made clear to the participants (usually members of the general public, often referred to as “citizen scientist”).

Most of the time individuals engage in CS because the project is directly linked to one of their interests or hobbies, such as, for example, bird watching. Also, some of the projects may be created “bottom-up” to influence local policy and are shaped by a number of people around a shared issue, such as air pollution within a neighbourhood. In such projects, a clear sense of purpose is present for all participants.

However, policy needs may not always be aligned to a direct hobby, interest or visible issue of potential participants. CS projects designed for policy may want/need to engage individuals who do not usually take part in CS projects (later referred to as ‘non-usual’ citizen scientists). Especially in this case, the policy scope and the purpose of their engagement need to be made clear. For example, if policy makers want to engage farmers in the monitoring of farmland birds, they have to communicate to the farmers why farmland bird monitoring is needed (e.g. to inform farmland bird biodiversity status) and the contribution of their monitoring to environmental policy formulation and evaluation. Clearly communicating the policy needs is essential and may help including individuals who would not otherwise engage in CS.

A mutual gains approach

In addition to clearly communicating the purpose, a ‘mutual-gains approach’ should be considered during the design of a project. A mutual-gains approach recognizes the opportunities for solutions that come about when the needs of each party are addressed (Moomaw et al., 2017). In this approach, the needs and interests of policy makers and citizen scientists are taken into consideration in the development of the project, including all phases from design to outputs. This inclusive approach will more likely engage ‘non-usual’ citizen scientists by making them equal stakeholders.

Communicating impact

Sometimes the link between the contribution of the public to a CS project and the resulting policy is not immediately obvious. This may not be important for individuals who, because of hobbies or personal interest, would have joined the project anyway. However, communicating the use of citizen scientists’ contribution is important to people who joined specifically to have policy impact, and who may be demotivated to participate in the future if they don’t see a clear link to the outcomes. To mitigate the risk, policy makers should plan to showcase the impact of citizens’ participation prior to the intended policy change, as the timespan of the political process will most probably outlive the life of the project itself.

The following exemplify this strategy. A CS project may involve pupils to report the amount of plastic packaging used by different supermarkets. Ultimately, the desired policy change would be to modify packaging practice by supermarkets. While this happens though, the impact of participation could be showcased for example by creating a map of supermarkets with information on their use of plastic, or by involving pupils in the dissemination of the collected information.

Above all, transparent and clear communication of the scope of the project and the potential impact of participation is key for policy makers interested in using citizen science to inform their work.  

About the Author: Cléa Montanari is a master student in Environmental Policy, Sustainable Development Diplomacy at Wageningen University. For more than three years she has been working in the field of citizen science, looking at its relationship with the SDGs, its inclusiveness and policy. Her ambition has been to leverage and disseminate knowledge to empower actors involved in the citizen science community.

Image Source: The Participatory Science Lifecycle designed by the ACTION project. Adapted to highlight the engagement of citizens in the research implementation cycle towards policy impact.


Fraisl, D., Campbell, J., See, L., Wehn, U., Wardlaw, J., Gold, M., … & Fritz, S. (2020). Mapping citizen science contributions to the UN sustainable development goals. Sustainability Science, 15(6), 1735-1751.

Fritz, S., See, L., Carlson, T., Haklay, M. M., Oliver, J. L., Fraisl, D., … & West, S. (2019). Citizen science and the United Nations sustainable development goals. Nature Sustainability, 2(10), 922-930.

Scheepens, S. (2014). Exploring the potential participation in citizen science, conservation tourism, and participatory environmental research tourism to lead an environmental change in practices. Master’s thesis, Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University.

Moomaw, W. R., Bhandary, R. R., Kuhl, L., & Verkooijen, P. (2017). Sustainable development diplomacy: Diagnostics for the negotiation and implementation of sustainable development.

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