Citizen science, community-based research and meaningful public participation in decision-making

‘Citizen science’ is the more recent term for the amateur scientific work that has been undertaken by the informed, often self-educated and -trained citizenry since… well, since the origins of science. Many great names in science – Darwin, Kepler, Descarte, Newton – were highly skilful ‘amateurs’. Field naturalists clubs in Australia and science-based clubs in North America (eg Audobon societies) have been sites of mass, democratic interest and involvement in science since the nineteenth century. It has been said (external link to a PDF) that ‘Science is an emergent activity. It resists top-down control,’  and that the role of educated citizenry in scientific work remains essential to comprehensive, thorough and informed base of scientific information.

In our recent environmental justice research, we tackled the conundrum of meaningful community participation in land use planning and environmental decision-making, looking at three cases studies. In each case study, communities were offered and participated in consultation by government authorities as required by law. However in no case did people feel that they meaningfully influenced the outcome of the processes in which they had an interest. (Many resorted to protest and other informal avenues of participation to seek authority and influence in the process).

So might citizen science and community-based research be a pathway to genuine public participation in decision-making? This is very relevant to the EDO as nearly all of our environmental and planning matters are disputes relying heavily on scientific evidence. The observation, recording and monitoring of community experience should be a key source of data and information in these matters. But we have seen all too often these informal, semi-formal and ‘non-expert’ sources of information are disregarded or downplayed by official decision-makers in favour of professional experts. This is a big problem, as we detail in our environmental justice research report:

In Victoria, the experts providing opinions on the environmental impacts for a proposed project or activity are experts chosen and paid for by the proponents for those projects or activities. This is problematic as the affected communities invariably perceive that there is a built in conflict of interest in this processes … As discussed, this problem is exacerbated if concerned residents are not able to commission and put forward their own expert advice for consideration. What results is in effect one ‘version of events’ being made available to the decision- makers. The culture of … risk assessment in Australia and the control of this by experts and proponents are problematic for environmental justice. (p40-42)

What we need is the development of government programs in support of community-controlled participatory research, especially in the context of proposed projects with substantial environmental impacts. There then needs to be clear and open channels for this research to be fed into environmental decision-making.

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