The Impact of Citizen Environmental Science in the United States

Date01 March 2019
AuthorGeorge Wyeth, LeRoy C. Paddock, Alison Parker, Robert L. Glicksman, and Jecoliah Williams
3-2019 NEWS & ANALYSIS 49 ELR 10237
In April 2018, the Environmental Defense Fund
announced that it would launch in late 2020 a satellite
that can detect methane emanating from oil and ga s
operations, with the ability to monitor up to 80% of world-
wide production.1 is development comes at the same
time that the Donald Trump Administration has sought
to rescind regulations requiring companies to more closely
monitor methane emissions from oil and gas operations
and associated facilities, i ncludi ng pipel ines and reneries.2
e juxtaposition of these developments demonstrates that
the game has changed in the relationship between govern-
ment, regulated businesses, and members of the public,
as science and technology leapfrog the limited ability or
willingness of regulators to investigate, detect, and act on
releases of this potent greenhouse gas.
is juxtaposition is an exceptional example of a diver-
gence bet ween government and nong overnmental environ-
mental monitoring activity, but it is a striking illustration
of the fact that government agencies no longer have a near-
monopoly on gathering data and assembling information
on the environment. An increasingly sophisticated public,
rapid changes in monitoring technology, the ability to pro-
cess large volumes of data, and socia l media are increasing
the capacity for members of the public, advocacy groups,
and community organiz ations to gather, interpret, and
exchange environmental data.
is development has the potential to alter the histori-
cally government-centric approach to environmental gov-
ernance. Data and information generated through “citizen
science” can provide a richer understanding of environ-
mental conditions and allow members of the public to
play a more prominent role in environmenta l governance,
both by prodding government action that puts pressure on
polluting companies, and by helping companies to better
understand their impact on the environment, perhaps lead-
ing to more self-initiated eorts to reduce environmental
harms. While some concern has been expressed about the
reliability of citizen science and citizen monitoring, this
Article focuses on how citizen science and citiz en monitor-
ing that meet generally accepted d ata quality standards can
enhance environmental governance.
However, citizen science has had a mixed record to date
in inuencing government decisions and actions, which
is where its most concrete potential impact arguably lies.
1. Press Release, Envtl. Def. Fund, EDF Announces Satellite Mission to Locate
and Measure Methane Emissions (Apr. 11, 2018),
2. See Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties, and Resource Con-
servation; Rescission or Revision of Certain Requirements, 83 Fed. Reg.
49184 (Sept. 28, 2018); Oil and Natural Gas Sector: Emission Standards
for New, Reconstructed, and Modied Sources Reconsideration, 83 Fed.
Reg. 52056 (proposed Oct. 15, 2018).
The Impact of
Science in the
United States
by George Wyeth, LeRoy C. Paddock,
Alison Parker, Robert L. Glicksman, and
Jecoliah Williams
George Wyeth is a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law
Institute. LeRoy C. Paddock is associate dean for environmental
legal studies at the George Washington University Law School.
Alison Parker is a researcher with the Science and Technology
Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars. Robert L. Glicksman is the J.B. and
Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Law at the George Washington
University Law School. Jecoliah Williams is a third-year
student at the George Washington University Law School.
An increasingly sophistic ated public, rapid changes in moni-
toring technology, the ability to process large volumes of
data, and social media a re increasing the capacity for mem-
bers of the public and advocacy groups to gather, interpret,
and exchange environmental data . is development has
the potential to alter the government-centric approach to
environmental governance; however, citizen science has had
a mixed record in inuencing government decisions and
actions. is Art icle rev iews the rapid changes that are going
on in the eld of citizen science and examines what makes
citizen science initiatives impactful, as well as the barriers to
greater impact. It reports on 10 case studies, and evaluates
these to provide ndings about the state of citizen science
and recommendations on what might be done to increase its
inuence on environmental decisionmaking.
Copyright © 2019 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.
I. Introduction to Citizen Science
A. The Citizen Science Explosion
Citizen science is the involvement of the public in scien-
tic research.3 is activity includes gathering, analyzing,
and sharing environmentally related scientic in formation,
often obtained through advanc ed monitoring (increasingly
through the use of new, lower-cost technologies that are
deployed by organizations or individuals other tha n gov-
ernments or regulated companies). It can take many forms,
ranging from projects led by professional scientists in insti-
tutions (contributory citizen science),4 to commu nity-led
eorts that orient toward community goals (community sci-
ence, community citizen science, or collegial progra ms), 5 and
many variations in between.
Citizen science is ourishing as a tool for scientic
advancement and as a movement engaging the public., the most comprehensive inventory of citi-
zen science projects, includes more than 1,700 projects and
50,000 act ive members.6 ere are at lea st 1,676 projects
3. See Rick Bonney et al., Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding
Science Knowledge and Scientic Literacy, 59 BS 977 (2009) (de-
ning citizen science). Other terms and expressions are sometimes used to
describe approaches with similar principles and goals, such as public partici-
pation in scientic research (PPSR), community science, community-based
monitoring, and community-based management. See Melissa V. Eitzel et al.,
Citizen Science Terminolog y Matters: Exploring Key Terms, 2 C S.:
T  P. 5-11 (2017); Cathy C. Conrad & Krista G. Hilchey, A
Review of Citizen Science and Community-Based Environmental Monitoring:
Issues and Opportunities, 176 E. M  A 274, 274
(2011) (citing Graham Whitelaw et al., Establishing the Canadian Com-
munity Monitoring Network, 88 E. M  A 409
(2003)) (dening community-based monitoring); Heather L. Keough &
Dale J. Blahna, Achieving Integrative, Collaborative Ecosystem Management,
20 C B 1373 (2006) (dening community-based man-
agement). In the legal literature, terms such as volunteer monitoring, par-
ticipatory action research, civil society research, and community policing
are sometimes used to describe related practices. See Annie E. Brett, Putting
the Public on Trial: Can Citizen Science Data Be Used in Litigation and Regu-
lation?, 28 V. E. L.J. 162 (2017); see also Abby J. Kinchy & Simona
L. Perry, Can Volunteers Pick Up the Slack? Eorts to Remedy Knowledge Gaps
About the Watershed Impact of Marcellus Shale Gas Development, 22 D
E. L.  P’ F. 303, 304 (2012) (discussing civil society research);
Dara O’Rourke & Gregg P. Macey, Community Environmental Policing: As-
sessing New Strategies of Public Participation, 22 J. P’ A  M.
383 (2003) (discussing community policing).
4. Jennifer L. Shirk et al., Public Participation in Scientic Research: A Frame-
work for Deliberate Design, 17 E  S’ 29, 32 (2012).
5. In community science, collaboratively led scientic investigation and explora-
tion addresses community-dened questions, allowing for engagement in the
entirety of the scientic process. Unique in comparison to traditional citizen
science driven by researchers or institutions, community science may or may
not include partnerships with professional scientists, emphasizes the commu-
nity’s ownership of research and access to resulting data, and orients toward
community goals and working together in scalable networks to encourage
collaborative learning and civic engagement. See Shannon Dosemagen &
Gretchen Gehrke, Civic Technology and Community Science: A New Model
for Public Participation in Environmental Decisions, in C 
C  P P: I  E, P-
,  H D-M (P   I S
U S S  S C) 143 (Jean
Goodwin ed., Science Communication Project 2016). Community science
is similar to “collegial” citizen science. See Shirk et al., supra note 4, at 32.
6. Lea Schell, SciStarter’s Top 10 Projects Are Here!, SS (Jan. 18, 2018),
Citizen-generated data can inform government action in
ways that include:
increasi ng agenc y knowled ge of environ mental
conditions ,
supporting rulema king,
providing additional data for environmental impact
better informing permitting decisions,
identifying potential violations,
prodding agencies to act on violations, and
helping to monitor how well states are performing
delegated responsibilities.
is Article reviews the rapid changes that a re going on
in the eld of citizen science and examines what makes
citizen science initiatives impactful, as well as the barri-
ers to greater impact. It then reports on 10 case studies
that shed light on what is working, and what is not, in the
eld. Based on evaluation of these case studies, we provide
a series of ndings about the state of citizen science and
recommendations on what might be done to increase its
inuence on g overnment agencies.
In brief, we recommend:
1. e U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
and other env ironmenta l agencie s should ta ke spe-
cic steps to encourage and support the use of citizen
science in their decisions and actions. Specically,
EPA should adopt a citizen science strategy aimed
at creating a culture that is receptive to the use of
citizen-generated data, and a ll agencies should take
steps to “meet citizen scientists halfway” to ma ximize
the use of their eorts.
2. Citizen scientists can and should learn from the
successes of others. e case studies described below
illustrate a variety of pract ices that can be used more
wi de ly.
3. Air programs in par ticular should seek to use citi-
zen-generated data to better understand and address
air pollut ion problems at the neighborhood level—
especially in environmental justice communities.
4. Unnecessary lega l barriers should be removed—
especially laws adopted to protect specic business
sectors from public oversight.
5. A system should be established for the validation
of emerging sensor technologies that are commonly
used by citizen scientists.
Copyright © 2019 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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