You may have collected data on earthworms, pond dipped or searched for bugs under your plant pots through OPAL surveys; now a new initiative is looking for new ways in which you can contribute to scientific research on the major environmental challenges facing the planet. This year long project, called OPENER, will identify ways that researchers can involve people at all stages of the research process.
Funded through NERC’s Engaging Environments programme, OPENER aims to bring together citizen scientists, professional scientists, businesses and others who have a passion for researching the natural world. It is focused on building capacity through training in citizen science (for both researchers and members of the public) and developing so called local 'communities of practice' (interest groups) to prepare for a nationwide programme of public engagement with environmental sciences.
The UK has a rich history of citizen science, in which non-experts collect vital data to inform scientists on the state of the environment. OPAL has been a key part of this movement, involving close to a million people in surveying their local hedges, ponds, gardens and more.
“Every day we are confronted with news stories about the latest freak weather event or soaring air pollution levels in our neighbourhood - citizen science provides a mechanism through which we can all contribute towards investigating matters that affect our lives,” said Dr Poppy Lakeman Fraser, Senior Programme Coordinator at OPAL. Her role within OPENER will initially be to review and glean insights from existing collaborations between researchers and the public.
“OPAL participants have gathered data over a level of spatial detail missing from many formal scientific projects and have provided information on urban environments often poorly monitored by other surveys. But information collection is only one part of the scientific story: we need help with learning what matters to people to inform the questions are investigated; understanding how we can collectively find novel ways to investigate global changes; and interpreting data so that together we can better understand and respond to these huge environmental challenges."
OPENER will set up a national consortium that takes citizen science to the next level by asking the public how opportunities to take part in environmental research can be made easier and more exciting.
“We’re thrilled that OPAL is part of the OPENER consortium. Opening up the conversation about how both professional and citizen scientists can work together in the most inspiring and productive way is a fundamental step to advancing contemporary scientific research,“ added Dr Lakeman Fraser.
Taking citizen science to the next level
Led by the University of Reading, OPENER also involves University College London, Imperial College London, Newcastle University, University of Salford and the Earthwatch Institute.
Dr Hilary Geoghegan, OPAL researcher and Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Reading, and project lead, said: “We want to harness the power of the public, regardless of age and ability, to address major environmental challenges. We want to progress from ‘public engagement' being solely passive consumption of science news, or one-off involvement in a single initiative, to being ongoing, active and routine. Our vision is to leverage the power of the people to co-produce innovative research that is relevant to people’s lives.”
Through extensive collaboration with members of the public, NGOs, professional scientists, engagement specialists and public sector bodies, this project promotes the sharing of best practices among existing networks for improved public engagement. Local meet ups will build on activities in Manchester, Newcastle and London ahead of a national gathering in Reading in the summer, starting with a citizen science showcase as part of Manchester Science Festival on 21 - 22 October 2017.
“We also want to create a generation of researchers who know how to successfully engage with the public to communicate their work and understand its social implications," Dr Geoghegan added. "We want members of the public to get in touch, go to an event, join the mailing list, tell their friends, and participate in their local community practice. It is only through the public’s participation that we can truly open up environmental research.”
NERC’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Alison Robinson, said: 'Engaging Environments' is a huge step towards achieving NERC’s ambitious, long-term goals for public engagement with environmental research.
“We are delighted to be funding such a range of innovative programmes and look forward to seeing these build bigger, better and more meaningful engagement in the enormous range of environmental topics that affect our daily lives.”
Join the OPENER community
If you want to be kept informed about OPENER and share your opinion about how we can make the community as inclusive as possible, we'd love you to join the conversation. Join the OPENER mailing list