Harnessing Enthusiasm: Ecosocialities and Citizens as Early-Warning Systems

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Geography


Citizen science is an activity that is becoming increasingly important as demand for data on biodiversity outstrips the capacity of professional scientists (in terms of finance and manpower). Working in partnership with Forest Research (Britain's principal organization for forestry research), the Sylva Foundation (a charitable trust promoting wood culture) and the Science Museum (internationally-renowned institution engaging citizens with science and technology), this project addresses the need for new ways of harnessing citizen enthusiasm in order to develop a sustainable citizen science for tree health monitoring.

Citizen science is defined as data collection by non-scientists for scientific projects. Since the mid 19th century, volunteers, amateurs and enthusiasts have participated in citizen science. In the 21st-century, citizens are leading the way in monitoring risk and environmental change, for example recording radiation levels following the recent earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan. They are mixing an interest in science with new technologies and traditional enthusiasms. The sophistication of smartphones and developments within web technology, such as Flickr, Facebook, Google Maps, Wikis and blogs, have increased the breadth and depth of potential participation and interest. However, the role of technology in citizen science and sustaining participation has yet to be fully understood or utilised.

Tracing the new 'Tree Health Surveillance Framework' for Britain through participant observation and semi-structured interviews with citizen scientists, scientists, technicians and users of citizen data, as well as international comparative research on citizen monitoring projects in Australia (a leader in biosecurity), this research asks:

1. Why do citizens participate in scientific projects?
2. What role does technology play in citizen science?
3. How is citizen data valued by scientists and other users?
4. What potential is there for citizens to act as early-warning systems for the movements of biologically invasive species attacking trees?

Encouraging dialogue between researchers in the social and environmental sciences, specifically human geographers, GIS researchers and forest researchers, this project will develop the concept of 'ecosocialities' as a novel theorization of social environmental relations. This research has benefits for a wide range of audiences:
* academics studying relations between people, technology and nature;
* project partners interested in implementing citizen science projects to monitor tree health in the UK;
* government departments, such as Defra and Fera, charged with re-connecting the public to their local environments;
* NGOs and charities organising citizen science projects;
* members of the public who want to contribute to and apply scientific knowledge in their local communities.

In order to maximise the impact of the project, the following activities are planned:
* production of academic papers for journals and conferences;
* progress reports for partners, press releases for the media and details of research findings for other stakeholders via the project website;
* four workshops for researchers, scientists, decision-makers and citizens;
* a secondment to Forest Research to maximise opportunities for knowledge exchange;
* knowledge exchange skills development through training from the Science Museum and UCL's Public Engagement Unit;
* regularly updated website with videos and Twitter feed in order to encourage participation and circulate findings.

Thus, this Future Research Leader award will: build skills in international comparative research; foster inter-disciplinary working between researchers in human geography and GIS; facilitate knowledge exchange between academics, citizens and scientists; and enhance education through research-led MSc teaching and PhD supervision.

Planned Impact

In the 1960s/70s, Dutch elm disease killed some 30 million trees, affecting the provision of multiple economic, social and environmental benefits. The benefits of trees to carbon sequestration, biodiversity and recreation are valued at just under £1.1 billion annually (UK National Ecosystem Assessment 2011). The potential impact of citizens acting as an early-warning system for potential tree disease or pest epidemics is significant. Thus, there are a myriad of non-academic beneficiaries and users for this research.

Project Partner Organisations: All have been enthusiastic about the research and its potential contribution, as well as instrumental in framing research questions. They will be able to use outputs at all stages of the research to inform and formulate current and future citizen science, specifically Forest Research's 'Tree Health Surveillance Framework', the Sylva Foundation's TreeWatch scheme and the Science Museum's Public History initiatives to engage citizens online and off-site with science and technology. Two longer-term impacts relate to the value of our partnership to enhance the research capacity of these organisations, particularly the Sylva Foundation and the Science Museum, as well as contributing toward environmental sustainability as citizen science projects develop.

Environmental Organisations and Charities: Bodies involved in citizen projects and tree health, such as The Royal Forestry Society, The Royal Horticultural Society, Woodland Trust, National Trust, Tree Council, Confor, Scottish Royal Forestry Society, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Institute of Chartered Foresters, will benefit from international best practice and technological innovation. A wider group of organisations, traditionally involved in citizen science, such as National Biodiversity Network, Trees for Cities, The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and British Hedgehog Preservation Society to name a few, will benefit from the translation of the value of citizen science activities for scientists, government and other funders.

Government Bodies: The 'Natural Choice' and 'Giving' White Papers detail the role of voluntary monitoring in enabling citizens to connect with their local environments and communities, and 'volunteer time spent in biodiversity conservation' is used as a biodiversity indicator by Defra. This research will benefit bodies, such as Defra, Fera, Forestry Commission, Environment Agency and Natural England, charged with engaging citizens on the environmental. It will offer understandings of harnessing citizen enthusiasm for science, public engagement with risk, citizens as early-warning systems, as well as monitoring environments for health.

Voluntary Sector: Participation in citizen science projects is predominantly a voluntary activity. Organisations and advocacy groups supporting volunteering will benefit from in-depth understandings of enthusiasm for participation and international best practice, as well as possible local environmental improvement, social inclusion, capacity building and active citizenship. Beneficiaries include but are not limited to: National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Volunteering England, TimeBank, BTCV, Greenspace and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

Citizens and wider public: This includes research participants, the wider body of citizen scientists, as well as current non-participants who will join-in as citizen science becomes more widely accepted. As the project findings feed into policy and practice in the UK and internationally, the research will further encourage environmental citizenship, contributing to awareness, well-being and resilience to change, as well as enhancing the relationship between government bodies and citizens.

My research will also benefit international users similar to those listed above, as well as businesses and charities interested in the users of their technologies, for example ESRI (GIS) and the Citizen Cyberscience Centre.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/K001426/1 01/10/2012 31/08/2013 £169,601
ES/K001426/2 Transfer ES/K001426/1 01/09/2013 30/09/2015 £123,815
Description NERC Community for Engaging Environments
Amount £1,317,801 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S017437/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2019 
End 07/2022
Description BBC Radio 4 Today Programme media interest (citizen science) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact interview sparked requests for more information about my research and national research interest afterwards.

Not applicable at this stage
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Department Seminar (Queen's University Belfast) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation keynote/invited speaker
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards

N/A at this stage
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative Workshop (enthusiasm) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards

increased interest in social science and tree health
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013