The relevance of citizen science for activists in South Africa

By Ferrial Adam

Environmental issues are linked closely to aspects of science. This means that if people want to challenge environmental degradation, they often need an understanding of the basic science surrounding the problem. Science has become a field for professional expertise and knowledge and has been used to leverage power and ‘lock’ people out of basic information about their worlds. In the environmental sphere, people at the frontline of pollution and environmental damage (located close to and downwind of heavy industries, smelters and mining operations have found it difficult to challenge polluting industries because selective aspects of science are utilized to counter their arguments and refute their claims.

While ‘traditional’ science has been used as a tool to sustain injustice and perpetuate social, economic and political power, citizen science has emerged as a way of ‘democratizing science’ that can empower communities to gain greater control over their lives, health, and environment. It is within such a context that this emerging and positive trend could be negatively affected by a move to develop a universal definition and criteria for citizen science.

Currently, there is no agreed, all-encompassing definition of citizen science, but in general, it refers to ordinary people using science to act on issues of concern, both individually and collectively. There are three generally agreed models of citizen science. The first is where ordinary people are only involved in data collection, for example, counting types of trees, identifying birds, or capturing rainfall data. The second type expands on this, with people involved in data collection as well as assisting with the design of associated research. However in general, for both models, the interpretation and analysis of data are conducted by professional scientists and the contribution made by people is mostly towards gathering data. The third model though represents a collaborative or participatory research approach where people are involved in all aspects of the research – design, gathering data and analyzing and interpreting what they find. In this model, scientists act as consultants and advisors whereas the people involved decide how to use the information that has been found.

In South Africa, citizen science is not new. There are hundreds of projects from identifying birds and plant species to actions to rehabilitate river health. In addition, environmental justice activists have employed citizen science to expose high levels of air pollution, such as the environmental justice organization GroundWork which introduced the ‘bucket brigade’ air monitoring system to communities living in various pollution hotspots around South Africa. The system uses a simple method to grab air samples that consists of a bucket, bicycle pump, and specialized bags. GroundWork activists have trained community leaders to take air samples, send them off to laboratories and to interpret the data. This community monitoring capacity then empowered communities to act on air pollution, forcing both government and private companies to better monitor air quality and national government to adopt new legislation. In other words, people were able to use science as a tool to challenge, and to a certain extent, shift power relations. Further though, this process ‘armed’ people with knowledge and information that they used to open and create spaces for engagement; in the process providing them with a relevant language to be heard and acted upon by both government and corporations.

In a recent article by Heigl et al. (2019) titled ‘Toward an international definition of citizen science’, there is a proposal to develop a universal definition of ‘citizen science’ that would have set criteria and be more confined and controlled. This runs the risk of undermining differentially experienced and practiced citizen science as well as its inherent conceptual flexibility while upholding the dogmatic science models that are presently dominant. Potentially then, adopting the kind of universal definition suggested by Heigl et al. would mean projects like the one conducted by GroundWork could be dismissed for not adhering to all the criteria such as having a scientist on the team.

The key counter-argument by Auerbach et al. (2019) suggests that trying to develop a universal definition of citizen science could restrict and kill the creativity of a range of activities and projects that have been carried out across the globe. Most of the consequent debates and discussions have involved ‘citizen science’ groups in Europe and the USA as opposed to the global South. Unfortunately, both Heigl’s and Auerbach’s views do not really take this reality into account, thus leaving out distinct developing country contexts and experiences.

For example, in some developing countries, the application of a universal definition could be largely inappropriate for a community whose livelihood depends on their local environment. Such a community may seek scientific knowledge to form a better understanding of their environment, to further their cause and improve basic conditions. This means that the way in which we define what constitutes scientific activities is more than just data gathering and measurements.

There are also additional issues in developing countries like South Africa. With the high levels of unemployment and poverty, the key focus is on social justice and environmental issues are tackled as a by-product of such people’s struggles on the ground. Moreover, the cost of carrying out some of the citizen science activities can be far beyond the means of a community in which there is a lack of resources and where volunteerism has lost its appeal due to desperate material conditions.