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Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science (2015)

posted Mar 18, 2015, 4:13 PM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated Mar 18, 2015, 4:13 PM ]
Volume 48 Part 1, pp. 1-3


The growing role of citizen science in monitoring
environmental change – achieving a balance
with government programs?1
The evidence is becoming clearer, day by day, that changes are occurring
at the global level in weather, climate, the oceans, land use
and population distribution, all of which have serious implications for
natural ecosystems and their inhabitants, in Canada and beyond. At
the same time, government (public service) programs in recent years
involving long term monitoring of the Canadian environment have
been drastically reduced. This has affected our ability to detect spatial
and temporal changes in a range of indicators, thereby inhibiting the
ability of policy and decision makers to respond in a timely way to
environmental changes. For example, Canada’s exemplary Environmental
Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN) that initiated
Nature Watch, a national citizen science monitoring program (www., ceased operation in 2010; its last regional workshop was
held in 2006. Many EMAN-linked programs, in and out of government,
have either stopped due to loss of funding and staff, or are just
struggling to survive. Although a change in the federal government
may reverse the pattern and essential monitoring may eventually
resume in earnest, valuable data and information for recent years
have been lost forever.
This situation highlights the pivotal role of citizen science, particularly
when it is directed at monitoring the various natural environments
in Canada and in our region. Such activity by non-government organizations
(NGOs) is no longer just a valued supplement to government
sponsored programs; in many cases, it has replaced them. However,
this situation raises some questions, to be pondered by members of
NSIS and the broad environmental community– is this trend towards
an enhanced role for citizen science good for the country? How reliable
are data and information gathered by citizen groups? Where do
such data reside? Who writes and reviews the various reports? Who
curates and archives the data and information? How long can citizen
Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science (2015)
Volume 48 Part 1, pp. 1-3
1 This article celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the Halifax Field Naturalists, founded in
1975. A description of its activities, together with its excellent Newsletters, can be found
at .
groups continue and under what funding envelope (i.e., some monitoring,
such as for water quality and chemicals in sediments and tissues,
is very expensive)? If there is going to be greater reliance on citizen
science, such fundamental questions demand credible answers!
The respected role of citizen-led science has been shown particularly
well by programs such as the Christmas Bird Count across Canada and
the USA, and in Nova Scotia with the Spring Peeper Count and the
Kejimkujik Common Loon Survey. In Halifax, there is the monthly
reporting of anecdotal observations of plants, wildlife, and habitats,
as well as related talks, by the Halifax Field Naturalists (HFN); this
society, affiliated with Nature Canada and Nature Nova Scotia, is
celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015, a truly remarkable achievement.
Bird populations, a key indicator of general ecosystem health,
are monitored by the Nova Scotia Bird Society. Both of these local
groups keep records. Of a more general nature is the annual Clean
Nova Scotia beach clean-up and recording of marine litter, the Clean
Annapolis River Project water quality program in the Annapolis River
watershed, water quality monitoring in the Sackville and Cornwallis
River watersheds, and many others. Such programs produce much
information and also play a vital role in public education and awareness.
But they do have limitations, as they are run by volunteers and
specific programs may be short-term. Although there are exceptions,
the data collected rarely follow standard management protocols and are
seldom if ever housed in a central location. Reports are often placed
on group websites, but with little assurance of longevity, access, and
security. Indeed, funding challenges often limit or stop these groups
and their programs in midstream. In contrast to government (public
service) science, there is no formal mandate other than public interest,
volunteerism and commitment to a worthy cause to maintain many
of these citizen led science programs.
Ironically, despite such disadvantages, the importance of citizen-led
science programs has been widely recognized, partly because many
government-led and legally mandated programs have been reduced
or eliminated. Our premise is that in an affluent country like Canada,
with its continental and global environmental responsibilities, we need
a balance between such citizen science programs, especially those
monitoring aspects of the environment, and programs established
and run by government. They are both needed. We believe that our
challenge at present is to return to this balance.
A significant number of federal science and monitoring programs
have been eliminated since 2011-2012 (e.g., the Arctic ozone monitoring
program, the Experimental Lakes Area Program, ecotoxicology
of pesticides related to marine open-water aquaculture sites) or
continue with severe underfunding (e.g., the Gulf of Maine Council’s,
Gulfwatch contaminant monitoring program). Furthermore, whole
research programs associated with understanding and mitigating the
effects of chemicals in aquatic environments have ceased (e.g., the
Department of Fisheries and Oceans, environmental chemistry and
aquatic toxicology program; many similar programs in Environment
Canada). At the same time, NGOs struggle for project funding and
universities seldom become involved in environmental monitoring
(with some marked exceptions, such as the Ocean Tracking Network
program at Dalhousie University, the St John River studies at the
Canada Rivers Institute, UNB-Saint John and the Community Conservation
Research Network at Saint Mary's University, Halifax). The
evidence points to too little long term monitoring of Canada’s many
ecosystems, a legislated mandate of government.
Despite the many good examples of citizen science across the Maritimes,
the frequent lack of support for their organizations, combined
with the cutbacks of government (both federal and provincial), do not
bode well for understanding the current and future consequences of
environmental threats in Canada and in the Maritimes. Public debate
is needed around this issue. The NSIS, members of relevant NGOs,
government departments at all levels, and the universities should get
together to discuss the best ways to monitor natural ecosystems in
our Region, and provide cogent arguments to bolster the long-term
viability of NGOs and to counteract the troubling trends of cutbacks
in public service programs. We need to identify how citizen science
and government science, supported by research in the universities,
can work together, as well as interact with policymakers, for a better
future in a changing environment.

Peter G. Wells and David H. S. Richardson,
Editor and Associate Editor, PNSIS