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How citizen science is helping address the challenges of our time

Dr Gefion Thuermer

Research Fellow in Computer Science, Department of Informatics, King's College London

06 February 2023

February is 'Climate & Sustainability Month' at King’s College London. It offers us an opportunity to learn more about sustainability and take action on the climate crisis. So it‘s a good time to reflect on what we can actually do as individuals. Climate change, along with crises like the cost of living or growing misinformation online, often leave us feeling powerless to in the face of such immense challenges – but that’s not the case! 

So what can we do as individuals to make a difference? Citizen science may not be the answer to all the crises we face, but it’s a growing area that enables anyone to play their part in being part of the solution. From furthering research into flu and Covid-19 treatments through a crowdsourcing game on protein shapes to making discoveries of new planets and unusual astronomical objects, citizen scientists in growing numbers are making a difference to scientific discovery.  

With projects generally committed to being inclusive and accessible, and offering guidance, training and education, you can engage anywhere, anytime, for as little or much time as you can afford, at any age and be part of a project making a difference. 

Citizen science is more than a hobby 

Citizen science is when non-experts take an active part in the scientific process. It is most common in environmental monitoring such as through the Flora Incognita and iNaturalist apps, which allow citizens to record and identify plants, birds and animals in their environment. But there are many other ways to get involved. People from any walk of life can pose research questions, develop research methods, collect, classify or analyse data, and use their insights to raise issues to put pressure on policy makers. Ordinary citizens are making a difference already in this space, with projects underway responding to big societal challenges.

Climate change 

Citizens around the globe are collecting vast amounts of data to demonstrate how climate change is affecting their communities and local environments. The CompAir project sees citizens collect air quality data across Europe using easy-to-use sensors supplied by the project. They then use this to put pressure on policy makers to address cases of poor air quality in their neighbourhoods. Citizens have celebrated many successes in using their air quality measurements to change local and regional policies.

Another example is the Grow project - an app that enables citizens to document changes in their environment by taking pictures at different points in time to show deterioration and other changes. The collective data is then available for researchers around the world, who can use it to assess and predict future impact of climate change.

Citizen science is crucial for researchers and policy makers as it enables huge amounts of data that cover vast areas to be collected, that would otherwise be highly expensive and difficult to implement for professional researchers. It can especially contribute to monitoring progress towards the UN sustainable development goals - which is reliant on local data.

Citizen science is growing and its findings continue to make their way into scientific research publications. When citizens engage around the globe everyone benefits - researchers, policy makers, and most of all, citizens themselves."– Dr Gefion Thuermer

Cost of living 

The cost of living crisis is affecting countries across the globe, and all over Europe. Citizen science enables people to share data on their own individual struggles in the face of this crisis. This makes for very effective evidence for activists and policy-makers. The Vimes Boots Index launched by campaigner Jack Monroe, collated citizens’ supermarket bills revealing that, prices for budget products were rising more than for higher value products, and that supermarket chains were cutting back on budget product ranges. The research was picked up by the major news outlets across the UK, and led to supermarket chain Asda offering their full value range of products in all their stores.

The Numbeo platform compares prices at an even larger scale, with Citizen scientists collecting prices for a range of goods all over the world, enabling comparisons between countries and regions.


The last few years have seen an increase in misinformation online, especially around the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines, which has challenged trust in science and research. These developments and emerging distrust have also contributed to undermining democratic processes as we saw at Capitol Hill in the USA or more recently in Brazil. Engaging the public in citizen science helps people learn to better understand and interrogate information and data.

Studies have shown that participating in citizen science helps improve citizens’ data literacy and scientific literacy overall, and can help them learn about specific subjects, such as evolution. For example, the NEWSERA project engages citizen scientists in CitSciComm Labs, focused on enhancing their science communication and with that their impact on public discourse, helping them to communicate their results from citizen science projects more effectively to the public, researchers, businesses, policy makers and journalists. The project will be developing Communication Blueprints - guidelines for more effective science communication strategies in citizen science projects, later this year.

What’s next for citizen science? 

The wealth of projects on offer in citizen science suit all lifestyles and interests. You can explore the many project hubs such as Scistarter, Zooniverse, or EU-Citizen.Science to get a sense of the varied projects available. There is also funding available for anyone inspired to launch their own initiative through the IMPETUS project, which offers funding for projects focusing on the topics of Healthy Planet or Cities for Life. The European Union Prize for Citizen Science also celebrates the best and most impactful projects that have made a difference.

Citizen science is growing and its findings continue to make their way into scientific research publications. When citizens engage around the globe everyone benefits - researchers, policy makers, and most of all, citizens themselves.

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Gefion Thuermer

Gefion Thuermer

Research Fellow

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