Citizen Science for Planetary Health?! – Insights from ECSA 2022
From the 5th to the 8th of October 2022, the global citizen science community gathered in Berlin for the fourth European citizen science conference. This year’s ECSA was hosted by the Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History, MfN) Berlin and revolved around the theme of ‘Citizen Science for Planetary Health’.
The holistic concept of ‘planetary health’ is based on the idea that human health and well-being are inextricably linked to the health and well-being of the ecosystems that surround us. Consequently, in order to guarantee our own health, it is vital that we safeguard the health of planet Earth and all its natural systems. ECSA 2022 assembled around 400 participants to discuss the potential of citizen science to contribute to planetary health.
The conference kicked off on Wednesday evening with a welcome reception in the museum’s awe-inspiring dino hall. We at Bürger schaffen Wissen, the German citizen science platform, were given the great opportunity of hosting this event, which was sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In her opening keynote speech, Brigitte Baptiste from Universidad Ean in Colombia set the tone for the conference, stressing that no actor or activity can be decoupled from nature and concluding that we should use citizen science as a tool to understand what is happening to the ecological entities constituting our planet.
For the ensuing citizen science market, we had invited a variety of citizen science projects: My thing - I am what I (don’t) have, Changing Natures. Collecting the Anthropocene Together, IncluScience - Accessibility Data by and for Citizens, GINGER - Exploring society together, Greetings & Kisses - Letters digital. Citizens receive love letters, SelEe - Researching rare diseases through citizen science, Researching housing quality in large housing estates with children and adolescents C/O: ______ and UndercoverEisagenten - The bird’s eye on permafrost change presented their work. At the Bürger schaffen Wissen booth, conference participants could take a quiz to find out which citizen science type they are - bookworm, nature lover, tech geek, couch potato, humanitarian, health maker or allrounder - and get to know the citizen science contest On your marks! Citizen science in your city (Auf die Plätze! Citizen Science in deiner Stadt). After two years of online events, this was for many attendees the first chance to meet familiar faces and new colleagues offline - and so it turned out to be a long but enjoyable evening.
For the following two conference days, the organisers at MfN Berlin and ECSA had put together a comprehensive programme centering around the overarching theme of citizen science for planetary health. On Thursday, keynote speaker Sabine Gabrysch (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) offered a planetary health perspective on the climate crisis, showing how climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss are already affecting human health and calling for immediate action. Many of the presentations in the ensuing oral sessions demonstrated how citizen science projects contribute to action against these key challenges, for instance by filling data gaps in the monitoring of biodiversity, plastic pollution or air quality, but also by exploring what healthy cities or sustainable food chains could look like. Citizen scientists collect (and sometimes analyse) valuable data that most of the time could not be gathered through ‘conventional’ research and thereby allow us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the condition of the ecosystems. On the basis of this data, we can measure progress – for example on the SDG indicators – or environmental degradation and make recommendations to policymakers.
On Friday, Peter Elias from the University of Lagos in Nigeria held a keynote on citizen science in the Global South, highlighting that the approach plays an active role in a number of ecological projects in African countries. He argued that citizen science offers responses to the most prevailing planetary health challenges in Africa, namely the rapid population growth, the change of land use and climate change. In their interactive session, Dick Kasperowski and Anna Berti Suman exemplified that citizen science can exert real influence by highlighting a Swedish court ruling that was based on citizen science data collected by volunteers and activists. Said ruling decreed that a privately owned forest in the north of the country was not to be cut down and consequently sparked discussions on ‘epistemic’ versus political representation: Can legal decisions based on citizen science data weaken democratically legitimised institutions? In the afternoon, we presented our national citizen science platform Bürger schaffen Wissen in a poster session and had many interesting conversations on how to present projects and build a network.
On Saturday, the European research project CS Track held a satellite symposium presenting their findings on the nature of citizen science. During the past three years, the international team of CS Track has analysed data from more than 4500 citizen science projects and conducted a survey in 30 European countries to generate insights about citizen science and its impact in various areas.
ECSA 2022 has impressively demonstrated that citizen science has great potential to contribute to planetary health and that it is already doing so in many areas. Building on these key messages from ECSA 2022, ECSA 2024 will focus on the many ways in which citizen science can effect change at different levels of society, ecology, and policymaking. The fifth European citizen science conference will take place in Vienna, Austria and be hosted by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU) and the Natural History Museum Vienna.
To the organising teams at MfN Berlin and ECSA: Thank you so much for this fantastic ECSA 2022 and for letting us host the welcome reception! We left with many new insights, ideas and contacts and are already looking forward to meeting everyone again in Vienna.