Political impact through citizen science?

Through citizen science (CS), citizens with environmental concerns can have impact on government policy. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat: in his master’s thesis, Jurre Honkoop looks at the strategies used by Dutch CS initiatives around air quality to influence policy and improve air quality in their surroundings.

The risk of political stalemate

When it comes to air quality, citizen science is generally used to point out local breaches of air quality norms. The measurement campaigns conducted by Milieudefensie between 2009 and 2018 are a prime example. In these campaigns, citizens measured the air quality in locations with known poor air quality.
Alternatively, CS can be used as a tool by governments to foster knowledge and constructive dialogue between citizens and governments. An example of this is the Hollandse Luchten project, initiated by the province of North Holland as a platform to work together with citizens living around Tata Steel in IJmuiden and elsewhere in North-Holland on solutions for air pollution.
Where citizens seek policy change based on their measurement data, governments tend to point out that individual policies are complexly interrelated with other policies, and that CS data are of lower quality than official government data. Political stalemate usually follows, frustrating citizen scientists.

Alternative roads to impact

Citizens can however make political impact in more ways than merely providing raw data to politicians. In the short term, citizens can use the data they gathered to enthuse participants to actively voice their opinion on air quality. In this way, CS projects can change the political agenda by spurring political involvement of citizens, which can eventually lead to policy change.
An example of this is Stadslab Luchtkwaliteit Rotterdam, who regularly appear at public events to visualize measurement data so that citizens become aware of air quality in their street, and use these data as input for conversations with decision makers. In doing so, they combine public support for policy measures that enhance air quality and direct influence over such policy measures.
In the long term, constructive cooperation between citizens and governments through CS can show governments that citizen engagement in policy-making is valuable and that CS is a useful tool for citizen engagement. CS projects can also contribute to the quality of CS sensors in the long run. Here, CS does not change specific policies, but rather the way policies are made in the future.
The Dutch province of North Holland already reports that CS improves the dialogue between citizens and governments a year into the project, because of an increase in political and technical knowledge of the participating citizens. Its steering group considers giving citizens a bigger role in the remainder of the project.

Designed construction of impact

Citizen Science participants decide what type of impact they want to make based on their goals, strengths and a vision of what type of impact is “easiest” to make. Governments that are skeptical of the concept of CS might need to be forced to change policy by public pressure, might need to be convinced of the general use of citizen involvement, or might prove to only be convinced by “better” data.
Governments that are more willing to look at CS data and to listen to CS participants can be helped by creating broad societal support for an already desirable yet politically unattainable policy solution. Where Milieudefensie decided to start a public (media) campaign to convince policy makers to change course, Stadslab Luchtkwaliteit took a gentler approach. They were more readily invited to policy discussions, such as to discussions about Rotterdam “climate deals” and deemed public confrontation less beneficial to their cause. Instead, Stadslab works together with other societal actors in a.o. the healthy traffic coalition to influence the policy process directly and hosts events to raise public awareness of air quality and personal steps that can be taken to improve air quality.
Formal cooperation with a government may sound like the easiest route to impact, but can in fact restrict CS participants from making a desired impact. For example, resources might be allocated to more expensive sensors instead of public events to create awareness of research results.  During the Urban AirQ project, the national meteorological institute (KNMI) continuously stressed the importance of scientific quality of data over the potential effects of CS on citizen engagement in policy discussions. As a result, resources were shifted away from public events towards better sensors and data analysis. A careful balance needs to be struck between helpful proximity to policy makers and full loss of control over a project to policy makers, defying part of the added value of Citizen Science: citizen engagement.

The sizeable citizen science toolbox

In sum, citizen scientists can choose from a large toolbox of strategies if it proves difficult to directly impact policy with data. Where political impact is not data-driven but created through a complex process of cooperation and deliberation, conscious a priori process design – choosing the right procedural tools – is essential. The effectiveness and availability of the different tools is however dependent on the political context, formal project set-up, current network and knowledge of the CS participants, and their prior goals.
Knowing what tools are available and their specific functions is only the first step to using them in the right way. If used correctly however these tools can help governments and citizens come to workable solutions for problems identified by citizens themselves.
Would you like to learn more? Read Jurre’s thesis here.
Are you working on a citizen science initiative and are you looking for funding, network and/or support? You can sign up for the ACTION open call until 1 November 2020.


Honkoop, Jurre (2020) SCIENTIA POTENTIA EST? A diverse case analysis of the process through which citizen science coalitions attempt to change Dutch air quality policy and the way it is made. Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
The work in this thesis is related to the ACTION project, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 824603. The sole responsibility for the content of this document lies with the authors. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the funding authorities. The funding authorities are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

oktober 15, 2020