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Citizen Science – For Scientific Research, Conservation and the Public

Green Country Vol.127 (Aug 2017)

Citizen science is a collaborative effort among scientists and the general public, often planned by the former with participation of the latter, with them working jointly on and sharing results of scientific research and studies. Scientific work is no longer the charter of experts. In Hong Kong, citizen science has become popular in recent years. A particular example is the numerous ecological surveys carried out by citizen science teams organised by environmental groups. This is a good opportunity to promote citizen science to create a winning situation for scientific research, conservation and public education at the same time.

Citizen science can be traced back to over a century ago. The Christmas Bird Count in 1900 could be said to be the archetype of citizen science. A group of ornithologists in North America initiated the bird survey in the hope of replacing the then popular hunting activities with observations. From the original group of 27, numbers of participants have grown to tens of thousands of volunteers worldwide today. Bird data collected over the long period of time has played an important role in global bird conservation.

Citizen science activities span biological surveys, water quality monitoring, collection of weather data and tracing of invasive species, etc. Such activities have become very popular in North America and European countries, leading to the founding of the Citizen Science Association. And starting from last year, a Citizen Science Day is now celebrated each year to encourage citizen science activities.

Locally, citizen science could be traced back to the 1950s, when the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society started to collect reports of observations by amateur birdwatchers. These became the first important data on birds in Hong Kong. It was not a systematic effort to organise members of the public to participate in bird surveys, but it was still an early model of citizen science in action. In the 1970s, the Department of Biology of the Chinese University of Hong Kong initiated The Clean Air and Lichens Project, which recruited more than a thousand students from over sixty schools. The final results were compiled into a report on Hong Kong’s air pollution. This might well be said to be the beginning of citizen science in Hong Kong.

Protection of Long Valley

Citizen science activities bring benefits to all. The organisers benefit from extra manpower, which is particularly important to studies that involve simultaneous investigations covering wide areas. For members of the public who become participants in citizen science activities, the most direct benefit is an increase in knowledge and understanding of the environment. The sense of belonging in the community and civic awareness are also enhanced in the process.

Citizen science contributes a great deal to nature conservation through the considerable environmental monitoring work carried out by the public. There are numerous examples in Hong Kong too. The most outstanding case was the 2000 Conservation of Long Valley Campaign, which eventually forced the railway to go underground instead of passing through the wetland. This was the result of years of bird data collection by amateur birdwatchers.

Another example is the Butterfly Surveyor Team set up by Green Power in 2008, which has made quite a few important discoveries over the years through continuous monitoring and collection of butterfly data. In 2013 and 2015, for example, Hooked Oak Blue (Arhopala paramuta) and European Beak (Libythea celtis) were recorded at Sha Tau Kok. The former had not been found in Hong Kong for 32 years, and the latter was the first local discovery locally. Our butterfly surveyors have also exposed and stopped environmental damage at Yuen Tun Ha and Ta Tit Yan, in Tai Po District.

Enhancing public participation

One way to attract more people to join in citizen science work is to associate the activities with current affairs. In 2012, the typhoon-caused plastic pellets disaster which resulted in spillage of 6 billion plastic pellets into the sea gained much public concern. After that, in 2014, six green groups launched Coastal Watch to mobilise the public to clean up marine rubbish and collect ecological data to trace the origin of marine rubbish. It was obvious that public participation was heightened by the plastic pellets pollution incident.

At present, local citizen science activities focus on environmental and wildlife monitoring. Public participation can be sustained when the topic is closely associated with their daily lives. Interest is also heightened if the survey subjects are lovely or beautiful species. For instance, the Territory-wide Sparrow Survey Day launched last year received popular support as Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) is agile and lovely, and easily observed with its wide distribution.

Collaborative efforts are needed

Citizen science activities are not pure scientific research work or collection of data. The organisers may have to spend a lot of manpower and resources to look after and follow up on the needs of participants. The process can be part of public education, which is something many non-governmental organisations are good at. Most of the local citizen science activities are actually organised by environmental groups. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department also organises Hong Kong Reef Check. Yet this is not for anyone, but those who can dive.

To a certain extent, biological regulation of water quality interferes with the original river ecology. There is also the risk of introducing foreign species. Yet compared with addition of chemical substances, biological control is more comprehensive and effective. As reservoirs are the source of our drinking water, the use of chemicals poses a threat to public health. Besides, the cost of chemical treatment is also high, given the large capacity of reservoirs.

At present, the government and tertiary institutes, with more experts and scholars at hand, focus on pure scientific research and data collection. The government even has the authority to enforce conservation policy. Data collected in citizen science work is in fact of high value to the government and tertiary institutes. If collaboration can be formed among the three parties, making use of the mobilising ability of NGOs in citizen science activities, expertise in the tertiary institutes and enforcement power of the government, much progress can be achieved in conservation work in Hong Kong.

Clarify expectation

In today’s technology-driven world, it is foreseeable that innovation in technology will become a major economic pillar. Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is ever more important. Citizen science activities can play a role in consolidating such training.

In Hong Kong, citizen science is in the beginning stage. Most activities are short term in nature. With an increasingly higher education levels and civic awareness among the general public, and advances in communication and computing technologies, Hong Kong is ready to move forward in citizen science.

In the long run, the government, academic institutions and NGOs should collaborate to build a solid citizen science foundation for continuous monitoring and surveys of the community environment and ecosystem. The long-term, transparent data will become an essential resource for future scientific studies, and allow the public and policymakers to understand our environment more thoroughly. It is only then that we can formulate the most appropriate policy direction and measures.

Through the interaction of citizen science activities, the public will learn more about the capacity and limitation of the government, while the government will realise the expectations and needs of the public. This will allow all parties to work together to build a more ideal social and natural environment for Hong Kong.

Text | Henry Lui

Bird surveys conducted a century ago laid the foundation for today’s citizen science activities.
© Henry Lui
Lichen growth reflects the local air quality. Engaging the public to collect lichen growth data helps with analysing air pollution in different districts and is a fun activity itself.
© Henry Lui
Conservation data collected by birdwatchers was essential in the protection of Long Valley against the potential destruction posed by Lok Ma Chau Spur Line works.
© Henry Lui
European Beak, was spotted during citizen science activity in 2015; this was the first record in Hong Kong.
© Hui Chun Tung
Plastic pellets pollution incident in 2012 became a mobilising force in tracing marine rubbish.
© Henry Lui
Lovely and beautiful creatures such as sparrows and butterflies can attract public participation in citizen science activities.
Local NGOs are good at coordinating citizen science activities