Even before India reported its first case of Covid-19, WhatsApp messages began circulating, replete with advice on how to prevent and cure the SARS-CoV-2 infection. One message advised the reader to drink water every 15 minutes, another said the virus could be killed by breathing hot air from the sauna or a hair dryer.
In March 2020, the deputy commissioner of Mangaluru directed officials to take action against individuals spreading Covid-related fake messages on WhatsApp. However, such measures do not address the systemic lack of scientific understanding in society.
Apart from being potentially life-threatening, the rise of pseudo-scientific messaging during the pandemic has also exposed that India’s educational system hasn’t done enough to impart scientific temper and understanding among our citizens. While these fault lines were often visible during sporadic events in the past, Covid brought them to the fore.
Now, there is a new alternative that could help bridge this gap between the public and science — it’s called ‘citizen science’, and it has emerged as a powerful tool during the pandemic.
How citizen science aided pandemic response
Disseminating real-time and reliable information to the public during a pandemic plays a critical role in controlling the spread. This need led to the creation of Covid19Kerala.info, a crowdsourced citizen science project managed by the Collective for Open Data Distribution-Keralam (CODD-K) team.
“CODD-K collected Covid-19 data in real-time, curated it, and made it available to the public through a bilingual (English and Malayalam) user-friendly dashboard,” said Dr Neetha N. Vellichirammal, a CODD-K team member working at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in the US.
Many such citizen science projects have been initiated, which are assisting the pandemic response both in India and globally.
“Since the details are deposited in a public repository for longevity and reusability, it opens up opportunities for future studies and provides insights for future policymaking,” added Dr Neetha.
Other benefits of citizen science projects
Citizen science projects can be beneficial for all the stakeholders involved. Volunteers get first-hand experience by associating with a scientific exercise; acquire knowledge and learn to appreciate the process behind coming to the scientific conclusions.
Citizen science can also provide an innovative means of data collection for research, which otherwise may not have been possible, or would have been too expensive.
Apart from data collection during a pandemic, examples of citizen science research include monitoring and management of natural resources, including land, air, water, minerals and forests etc. In such large-scale and complicated projects, researchers can get the required data by distributing the workload among a larger group of volunteers, which drastically reduces the cost and time for implementation.
“Over the last few years, there has been a discernible interest and spurt of citizen science initiatives in India. The growth and permeation of ICT (information and communication technology), the availability and access to aggregation platforms, and the interest and awareness of citizens have all contributed to this growth,” commented Dr Prabhakar Rajagopal, coordinator of the India Biodiversity Portal and director of Strand Life Sciences.
“However, in a large and populous country like India, we are still at the tip of the iceberg in leveraging the potential power and possibilities of citizen science in India. A greater societal support with a favourable policy environment would help its growth and development,” he added.
How to harness it
One potential way to harness citizen science is by developing a framework for institutionalising it. However, several aspects for design and implementation would need to be considered during this process.
The National Achievement Survey conducted by the NCERT stated that students across 12 states scored significantly below the national average in mathematical ability, and also identified “learning” as a big challenge facing Indian education. The designing of specific citizen science projects and inculcating them at school and higher education levels could provide an effective learning tool for students.
In developed countries, most citizen science initiatives originate in the higher educational institutes. For example, many iconic projects such as ScienceAtHome and eBird started at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, US, respectively.
Similarly, top higher educational institutes in India, such as the IITs and IISERs, could help in spearheading and initiating such projects at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels. Many universities abroad now also have dedicated centres to coordinate and guide citizen science activities, but the Centre for Citizen Science (CCS), Pune, is currently the only one in India.
Currently, the number of citizen science projects is highly skewed in the south Indian states, and mainly focussed in the areas of environment and ecology. Various primary and higher educational institutes in India can be key to inclusion of students at different educational levels and geographies.
Ensuring data quality
A policy framework for citizen science also needs to address another important issue: Ensuring data quality.
“While the first assumption for a citizen science project is that knowledge and expertise is not confined to the ‘citadels of science’, citizen data would have observer biases. As data grows, simple machine algorithms and heuristics could provide the first level of automated validation and outlier detection,” said Dr Prabhakar Rajagopal.
To ensure data standardisation, several countries have framed and provided access to guidelines and best practices for citizen science. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a site on Quality Assurance Project Plan for citizen science projects which serves as a blueprint for how your project should run.
A ‘national online portal’, combined with a dashboard, based on an example like SciStarter, could act as a repository of all citizen science initiatives in India, and facilitate inter-regional connections and expand the coverage of citizen science projects.
The Department of Science and Technology in 2019 released the draft policy on Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR), which aims to strengthen the link between science and society. While the policy recognises the need for science outreach to strengthen the knowledge ecosystem, it fails to recognise the potential impact citizen science could have in this endeavour. However, the recently released draft of Science and Technology Policy does provide provisions for promoting ‘public engagement in science’ in general, and citizen science in particular.
With our demographic and ever-increasing penetration of technology, the potential of citizen science in India is vast and largely untapped. An evidence-based framework for citizen science policy has immense potential in contributing to not just in increasing scientific literacy and temper of the country, but also to Indian science as a whole.