Energy & Environment

Federal agencies turn to citizen scientists

Knowledge is power, and with it comes options and opportunities to make better decisions. In the case of our environment, knowledge has fueled efforts to make our country a healthier and safer place. When Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burned, and when our cities were clogged with unhealthy air, we learned and we took action. And, as a result, we developed some of the most innovative and effective environmental technologies and regulations on our planet.

{mosads}Few would disagree that maintaining environmental health requires us to recognize and understand problems, and doing so requires data. However, recent state and federal bills present several curious contradictions. While Congress is hesitant to fund environmental monitoring at levels many scientists consider necessary to protect people’s health and the environment, it is also demanding that agencies use more and better data to support decisions.

Unfortunately, it seems that just as we have grown an appetite for information and evidence-based decisions, we have lost the stomach to fund efforts to collect data. We can’t have it both ways without new approaches to collect the necessary data. For this reason, citizen scientists are increasingly relied upon to provide agencies and organizations with the data needed to make decisions.

Examples abound. NASA relies on amateur astronomers for asteroid observations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expanding citizen science activities to better monitor air and water quality. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) depends on volunteers to improve The National Map and document the aftermath of earthquakes. The best information we have on bird populations comes via citizen science initiatives such as the USGS’s North American Breeding Bird Survey and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird.

Our increasing reliance upon data collected by citizens is recognized at the highest levels of government. In the Open Government National Action Plan, President Obama called on federal agencies to better tap the public to help solve scientific and societal problems through innovative approaches like citizen science and crowdsourcing. More recently, the government established the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science tasked with developing a toolkit of best practices, training resources and guidance for agencies.

Yet amid many necessary and clear calls for citizen science, the state of Wyoming recently passed Wyoming Senate Bill 12, which is likely to discourage citizen science and public participation in environmental monitoring. The Unlawful Collection of Resource Data Bill (W.S. 6-3-414) makes it a criminal offense to collect and share resource data collected without explicit permission on open land. Most worrisome are the broad and vague definitions of (a) “collect,” which includes everything from collecting samples to taking photographs; (b) “resource data,” which include anything related to or on land, including agriculture, minerals, air, water or cultural artifacts; and (c) “open land,” which is defined as any “land outside of a city, town, subdivision, or development.” This broad language evokes concern that something as benign as taking a photograph in a national park without explicit permission could result in criminal charges.

Wyoming Senate Bill 12 followed a suit filed by landowners in response to an environmental organization documenting the presence of disease-causing E. coli bacteria in streams on public lands. Although the bill’s proponents frame it as a reasonable effort to prohibit trespass on private land, the expansive language risks a much broader application, potentially making it illegal to pursue the very actions that were once encouraged of responsible citizens — like reporting cases of environmental harm. For example, a concerned person who encounters a polluted stream in a national forest and takes pictures to share with the agency could now face fines or prison unless they first receive permission from the U.S. Forest Service to collect those resource data.

Critics allege that the new restrictions are intended to prevent people from documenting environmental problems like pollution and contamination. Meanwhile, legal scholars note that the law violates First Amendment rights of free speech without special burden as well as federal laws that specifically authorize citizens to enforce compliance with regulations, as is the case with the Clean Water Act.

Today’s problems need innovation and broad participation to be solved, and all solutions will require information. We do not have the luxury of adopting ideological stances that limit the availability of information we need to make good decisions. We have a choice to make. We can, as advocated by President Obama, “find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans,” or we can pay for experts to provide those data from the public purse. I hope we have the wisdom to avoid paying with our health and the health of the environment in the interest of saving dollars.

Rodewald is director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags Cornell Lab of Ornithology Environmental Protection Agency EPA NASA U.S. Geological Survey USGS

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