Policy impact

Citizen science projects can engage with policy processes in several ways and thus generate different forms of policy impact. Generally speaking, policy impact occurs when decision-makers, policy makers, or politicians employ the data, knowledge and results from a citizen science project as the basis for their policies, political decisions and activities. With decision makers, policy makers, and politicians, we mean anyone in a governmental or semi-governmental organisation involved in strategic planning or decisions.

Impact on policy processes is achieved through the mobilisation of knowledge and information for policy making. Citizen science projects collect large amounts of data, and tap into local or experiential knowledge. This data provides policy makers and politicians with an evidence base to address (new) problems. Access to citizen science generated data is often considered cost-efficient. Furthermore, governments often do not have the type and extent of data provided through citizen science.

Citizen science projects can exert influence throughout the whole policy cycle:

  • Agenda setting (new policy discourses and problem definitions): Citizen science projects can contribute to the problem definition and agenda setting stage of the policy cycle by triggering new policy discourses and concerns. In the past, CS projects have supported the identification of new environmental problems, such as farmland bird decline, and promoted issues such as pesticide use and intensive farming practices. In the “Botellon no me deja dormir” project in Barcelona, local residents were able to demonstrate how noise pollution was not a perception-, but a real problem. This helped to objectivize the level of noise tolerance which was previously considered to be subjective.
  • Policy formation (new or changed policies): Impact on policy formation means that the data from the CS project was effectively used for new or changes to existing policies (e.g. regulatory, management, conservation actions). For example, as a result of a CS project that involved the recreational fishing community in Puget Sounds, Washington State, USA, federal managers changed regulation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Another example comes from the Entomological Society Krefeld, whose citizen scientists measured a 75% decrease of insects over 27 years. Publishing this data together with paid scientists, and its uptake by the media, resulted in new national insect policy.
  • Policy implementation and enforcement: Citizen science can support policy implementation and enforcement, for example reporting breaches to relevant authorities, raising awareness and civic mobilisation. In the Sonic Kayaks project, citizen scientists measured pollutants in the water, coming from a big ship docked in the area. These results piqued the interest of the local council.
  • Monitoring and evaluation of policy: Citizen science projects can contribute to the monitoring and evaluation of policies. It can especially address the data limitations of traditional monitoring programs, and thus enable the evaluation of the impacts of policy decisions. Several citizen science monitoring programs have been instrumental in informing the designation of protected areas (e.g. eBird, Seasearch). The Common Farmland Bird Index is an example of recognized citizen science indicators for biodiversity monitoring in Europe, which is used to assess the impacts of the Rural Development Plans. Fresh Water Watch monitors water quality to monitor progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

Guidelines to achieve policy impact from citizen science projects

In addition to the policy recommendations, there are also steps that citizen science projects themselves can take. How can you ensure that the data, knowledge, and results of your citizen science project are taken up by policy makers? Here we outline five important steps. 

  • Get in touch with policy makers
    As the biggest potential for citizen science is to create local knowledge, it is usually better to approach local policy makers rather than national representatives. Local policy makers are much more concerned with and connected to the issues that local citizens have.
    When having conversations with policy makers, it is best to talk about what you can do for them, rather than presenting the project in your own terms. For example, it would be better to talk about the polarisation that is happening between citizens and the local council about odour nuisance, and how involving citizens in gathering data could lead to constructive discussions, rather than explaining your project from A to Z and asking for funding for it.
    Alternatively, a way to attract the attention of policy makers is via the media. If the project can publish some results that might be of interest or even shocking to citizens, policy makers might be more willing to collaborate. Whether this strategy works depends on the type of interaction with policy makers that is desirable: it runs the risk of antagonising them. 
  1. Align citizen science with policy priorities, agendas and processes
    Influencing policy processes requires linking the citizen science project to existing policy agendas and processes. This means first, to understand the policy agenda, and its associated activities. Linking and communicating how the project relates to ongoing or emerging policy debates and priorities can attract the attention of policy makers. In this step it helps if the citizen science community is already aware of what policy makers find useful.
  2. Clearly define roles and responsibilities in collaborations between policy makers and citizen science
    The interests, needs and work procedures of policy makers, citizen scientists and researchers are not always compatible. It is therefore important that the aims and expectations, as well as roles and responsibilities in policy and citizen science collaborations are clearly, and jointly established. These roles, aims, and expectations are different for every collaboration, so it is important to define them. For example, the role of public organisations can range from being clients paying a fee for the service, to co-creating and implementing solutions, to providing institutional support and offering mentorship.
  3. Continuous collaboration and engagement
    Citizen science activities should link to policy-making processes in an ongoing way, for example by involving policy makers and civil servants in the citizen science project design. Ideally, policy makers and the citizen science community would iteratively and jointly discuss and communicate policy needs for data and knowledge and the opportunities that citizen science represents. Collaborations can be diverse, including lasting and formal partnerships but also more informal collaborations and engagement activities. Especially when working on specific policy issues such as environmental monitoring, policy makers can seek strategic partnerships with citizen science organisations. Face-to-face events are important for providing information and spaces for interaction, increasing awareness about the relevance of citizen science data, and fostering exchange and networking between decision-makers, project leaders and practitioners.

Communicating and disseminating knowledge and results
As a basic condition, policy makers and public servants need to be aware of citizen science, the opportunities it offers to help them achieve their policy priorities and goals, as well as how they can engage with citizen science. Benefits, needs, best practices etc. of citizen science for policy development need to be clearly and widely communicated. The combination of publications (e.g. policy briefs, guidelines), advocacy work, and face-to-face activities (e.g. stakeholder roundtables, discovery trips) can help introduce policy makers to the practices of citizen science. These documents and activities can help them see the relevance of these approaches and provide resources to convince their colleagues. Importantly, the terminology used may need to be adjusted to describe citizen science in a way that is relevant to policy makers.



Recommendations for awareness raising

The project EU-Citizen.Science offers recommendations for raising awareness among different audiences, such as policy makers., and a list  of  recommendations  for boosting engagement of society, including policymakers, with citizen science, in both existing and new projects.

The WeObserve Impact Community of Practice members have developed the Citizen Science Impact Storytelling Approach (CSISTA) to support Citizen Science initiatives and Citizen Observatories in capturing their success stories.


Noise Maps

NoiseMaps has had substantial political impact in terms of citizen empowerment, and enlarging political support for citizen science. The community in Raval, Barcelona, had problems with sound pollution. NoiseMaps empowered these citizens with skills such as open technology and know-how, in order to be able to collaborate with the city council. The relationship between the community and the city council was contentious, but the project was able to build bridges between them and change the attitude of both parties to one of collaboration.

By giving these citizens an evidence-based voice, they were able to contribute to policy agenda setting – reframing the problem of noise pollution. Through their work, NoiseMaps also increased general political support for citizen science. The city council has given positive feedback, and the project even became one of the official citizen science projects in the Citizen Science office of Barcelona. The project is a success story that spreads via public administration, and thus paves the way for better integration between citizen science and policy.

Wow Nature

The Wow Nature initiative supports the development of urban forests. It invited citizens and companies to plant or adopt an already existing tree, educating them about the benefits of trees in reducing CO2 concentration and the necessity to compensate for our emissions. The initiative is powered by Etifor, a spin-off of the University of Padua (Italy). Thanks to the pilot conducted within the ACTION acceleration, the team is now able to demonstrate the actual contribution of some of the urban forests they support in terms of air quality improvement and particulate matter (PM) abatement. This is providing them with more accurate data that will be used for their advocacy work, especially towards public administrations, so that more urban forests can be developed for making our cities greener and more sustainable.

Restart data workbench

The Restart Data Workbench project was specifically designed to create a dataset that would allow Restart to influence policy, to push for more sustainable products and the Right to Repair. As an organisation, they want to address the lack of data sources that represent the “real experiences of real people”, and what happens with products used by normal people in all kinds of settings. This data can help to influence future regulation and tell a different story. What led Restart to work on this specific pilot was data about smart phone repairs, which helped them make the case in policy meetings at the EU level that manufacturers were not right in saying making screens and batteries available for repairs was sufficient. Restarts’ data showed 3% of all repairs affected device cameras, and 2% speakers.

The data for their ACTION pilot was selected based on upcoming policy decisions about product regulations at EU level, which is a much bigger, and more flexible, process. Things and timelines keep changing in EU policy making, and individual policy processes are often sped up or slowed down. For example, Restart decided to begin with data on printers, but this did not end up being the next conversation for policy makers. Batteries as a topic also moved back and forth on the agenda, making it hard for the project to decide when to address which issue with citizen scientists, so the data would be ready in time.

Restart also carefully considers which of their data is most relevant to policy processes. For instance, they have high quality data about how old the products brought in for repairs are. This can tell an important story to policy makers, if it turns out that many people who are trying to repair products that are ten years old, while the current legislation is looking at up to five years. This data could then help to explain that this policy may be  short-sighted.a could then help to explain that this policy may be  short-sighted.