April is marked as Citizen Science Month—not in India, but in the US. But it can only be to the good to take best practices from anywhere at all, and adapt them for our use, right? And an acceleration of the citizen science movement is something that is definitely a crying need in our country!
What is citizen science? The term probably appeared first in 1989, in an issue of the MIT Technology Review 1989, but till today, there is apparently no consensus on a single definition–one paper cites 34! But a working definition we could go by is the one given by the National Geographic Society: ‘Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge.’ The benefits of such initiatives are manifold: large public participation in scientific pursuits; raising scientific awareness and knowledge; democratization of science; ability to pull in indigenous and community knowledge, etc. In fact, without wide-spread involvement of a large number of people, many projects would be very difficult to do—nationwide bird counts, butterfly counts, monitoring water quality across large areas, weather monitoring, space watch, etc.
India has its share of action on this front. The Indian Biodiversity Portal launched in 2008 is a prime example. It ‘aims to aggregate data through public participation and provide open and free access to biodiversity information’ and invites the public to participate in gathering and documenting such knowledge. It currently has 1.54 million observations on 58.3 thousand species. It is an invaluable resource, which would have been difficult to put together without the participation from people across the country.
Another interesting initiative is by the CitSci (Citizen Science for Biodiversity) India–they organize an annual Citizen Science of Biodiversity Conference. Their site also shares useful information on on-going biodiversity and conservation related citizen science projects undertaken by a host of NGOs, like the Citizen Sparrow initiative, which is ‘a public participatory project to which all members of the public are invited to contribute. ‘
It is not just conservation. There are projects in various other scientific research areas as well. The Pune Knowledge Cluster develops research projects where citizens from all walks for life can participate to help analyse big data from various scientific streams including astronomy. Yet another organization in this area is the Centre for Citizen Science (a Pune based organization with the explicit objective of promoting citizen science) whose ‘Project Meghdoot’ aims to study the phenomenon for monsoon across the country.
Nor is this a recent phenomenon. I recall in the 1990s, when I was working at Centre for Environment Education (CEE), we had a project wherein school children, as part of the Ganga Pollution Awareness programme, were monitoring and reporting the water quality in the river in their stretch. Similarly, we had green-cover mapping and biodiversity census by college students in Karnataka, which was then correlated to remote sensing data.
The initiatives for spreading scientific knowledge, a necessary precursor of citizen science, have a hoary history in India, and several institutions have been committed to doing this for decades now. Two of the oldest are VASCSC and KSSP. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, in the ‘60s, created an institution, today called the Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC), one of whose objectives is to encourage scientific thinking. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) is a People’s Science Movement of Kerala, India, founded in 1962 has over 1200 units spread all over Kerala.
In fact, the recognition of the importance of science for national development is enshrined in the Constitution as a Fundamental Duty of every citizen! This section explicitly states that ‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India.. to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.’
From here to citizen science should not be too long a distance to traverse. But it questionable if we have even achieved the scientific temper, so earnestly endorsed by Pandit Nehru as ‘the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.’
Even with such strong foundations and a bunch of dedicated organizations, neither scientific temper nor citizen science is very widespread in India today. While there is much talk of the importance of STEM, it is yet a theoretical approach aimed at cracking exams, and not an effort to inculcate scientific thinking and the spirit of science as a part of how we live, think and take decisions.
Maybe we should pause to ponder on this now—because it is Citizen Science Month somewhere in the world!