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The merging of citizen science and social justice

By Sabrina Chow

Section: Features, News

February 9, 2018

Students and faculty convened in the International Lounge on Tuesday, Feb. 6, where Dr. Mark Chandler, the International Director of Research at the Earthwatch Institute, discussed the power of citizen science (cit sci) and its overarching benefits.


Hannah Stewart ’18 organized the event. She “wanted to learn more about citizen science and what ways it can be used in our world, not just science,” she said. “I wanted to introduce Brandeis to the intersection between cit sci and social justice.” As an Environmental Studies and Health, Science, Society, and Politics (HSSP) major, cit sci was the best of both worlds, allowing her to collect data and use it in a larger setting beyond herself.

“Cit sci is meant to engage the public, and scientists, who are interested in scientific research, data collection or finding your research question, analyzing data…It is very community based” said Chandler.

The main concept of citizen science is split into two different subgroups: science for citizens and citizens for science. “Science for citizens” relies heavily on the belief that all people, regardless of education level or socioeconomic status, have the ability to push science forward. On the other hand, citizens for science focuses on crowdsourcing and using citizens to collect data for scientific purposes.

Inclusion is a key characteristic of citizen science: the ability for anyone to participate, and for everyone to benefit in turn. The more science-involved portion of citizen science, in regards to sustainability, is the three E’s: environment, economy and equity. “Environment” promotes the flourishment of all ecosystems. “Economy” promotes strong economic benefits from increased sustainability. “Equity” is the social justice portion, in which everyone has equal access to clean air and healthy living.

There are several main topics that Chandler discussed that related to citizen science and its contribution to society. The first is demographic changes. By expanding the outreach of citizen science programs, scientists will be able to collect data from all corners of the globe and work together to unify our world.

The next is economic inequality. The population most affected by climate change is low-income residents in cities. One of the biggest correlations between health and pollution is the high percentage of people who have asthma because of poor air quality where they reside. “More trees create better air, but the access to this air is not equal. Planting thousands of trees for cooling benefits is not just beneficial for the planet, it has also been known to be a de-stressor and create more positive environments from a social perspective,” said Chandler.

He discussed how he hopes the population participating in citizen science will become more diverse. As it stands, the majority of participants within the citizen science studies are white men and women. Even though different ethnicities were more “interested in the environment over public health,” there still was a very low participation rate, said Chandler during his speech.

One of the audience members, Danielle Davidoff ’19, was already knowledgeable about citizen science, but was able to learn more. “I was excited to learn that cit sci can also help people in poor air quality areas know whether they can go outside one day. We need different kinds of people involved in cit sci platforms so that it can reflect all these various goals and so that we can ensure everyone, regardless of minority status, has access to clean air and water,” said Davidoff.

To get more involved with citizen science, Chandler and Stewart urge everyone to join the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge, which allows citizens all over the country, and the world, collect and share photo observations of their surrounding environment and document the beauty of nature. All of these observations together help to create a diverse social network that helps scientists to gain valuable data and teaches citizens about biodiversity and nature.

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