Taking the Citizen out of Citizen Science

“Penny wise and pound foolish” was how former New South Wales Planning Minister, Craig Knowles, described impending cuts to Streamwatch in 2012.

Streamwatch is a Citizen Science water quality monitoring program operating in the Greater Sydney region.  It was established in 1990 under the management of the Water Board (Sydney Water) and has been funded by Sydney Water since.  A study of data collected over 25 years was published in 2017. In 2013 management of the program was transferred to the Australian Museum, along with four years funding of around $900,000.

It looked like a good fit, particularly in April 2015 when the Museum launched it’s Centre for Citizen Science.  However, in June 2018 volunteers were formally advised that the Museum had decided the program was in fact not a ‘strategic fit’ and therefore they would discontinue hosting in June 2019.  Sydney Water, which had provided additional funding to the Museum in 2017 and 2018, has not committed funding beyond June 2019.

In the Australian Museum’s 2013 Annual Report Streamwatch is mentioned in the Director’s introduction as a ‘citizen science’ initiative promoting the importance of water quality in ecosystems’ (p.3).   Not only was Streamwatch new to the Museum in 2013, but so too was the term Citizen Science.  It appeared on three occasions in both the 2013 and 2014 reports.   In 2015 there were 14 mentions, 21 in 2016, 24 in 2017 and 32 in 2018.

In 2015, in the section Science at the Museum’s Core (p.19), the establishment of the Centre for Citizen Science was recorded and Streamwatch highlighted:

The AM is already a hub for citizen science in Australia with major projects in development to complement the AM’s well known Bushblitz, Bioblitz and Streamwatch programs.

Paul Flemons, Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science and Kim McKay AO, Director and CEO, Australian Museum with The Hon. Greg Hunt, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science and Federal Member for Mackellar, Jason Falinski

In the 2017 report Streamwatch was mentioned under Creating a Science Nation.  In the 2016-17 financial year Streamwatch was incorporated into the Centre for Citizen Science and in November 2016 it was featured in the launch of the first round of Commonwealth Government funded Citizen Science grants at Warriewood wetlands. (see photo left)

The successful grant recipients were announced in May and August 2017 with the Australian Museum’s Frog ID program collecting $493,193.

Inspiring Australia NSW featured Streamwatchers Margaret and Bryan Smith in their announcement of the first round of grant recipients.

However, in the 2018 Annual Report Streamwatch was not listed in the section on Citizen Science.  In fact, even though there were 32 instances of the term, Streamwatch was not associated with any.  It only appeared in the Section on Grant Funded Projects and in Appendix T “Museum Volunteers” (p.147)  The flagship Citizen Science program was now Frog ID, an app based program where ‘citizen scientists’ use smartphones to record frog calls (p.6).  Frog ID coupled with the term Citizen Science occurred in another 6 places throughout the report (pp. 3,21,29,32,37,49): “over 50,000 citizen scientists from across Australia have downloaded the app” (p.32).  It is an impressive reach compared to 224 Streamwatch volunteers in 53 groups across 114 sites (p.147).  Nonetheless, to understand Citizen Science, and the importance of programs like Streamwatch, it is important to look further.

On page 33 of the 2018 report the Museum’s Centre for Citizen Science was also recorded as host for the Australian Citizen Science Association.  At the Association’s second annual conference in Adelaide, in February 2018, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, reminded delegates that:  

We often focus on the “science” part of citizen science. The “citizen” is important as well. It reminds us that we are part of something greater than ourselves, with a duty to generations to come.

There are benefits for Citizen Science programs at the Crowdsourcing level:  the Museum, for example, enjoys the benefit of exposure to tens of thousands of potential customers who might otherwise be unaware of its existence;  the Frog ID app users may graduate to higher levels of Citizen Science participation  These are undeniably positive benefits.  However, there doesn’t appear to have been any consideration of how the range of values that define Citizen Science are communicated and demonstrated.

Citizen Science as described in the Museum’s Science Strategy 2017-21:

The museum has been an Australian pioneer in citizen science, long providing opportunities for anyone who wants to make a difference through science. Today, the Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science oversees and coordinates our efforts. Our programs highlight our scientific investigations, examine contemporary issues for which science can provide solutions and inspire our audiences to contribute. We use a range of learning approaches and support face to-face interactions and digital initiatives to inform and create an environment that stimulates curiosity and motivates learning.

Cooks River Valley Association Streamwatch Program monitoring sites

Despite the Museum’s claims to be a pioneer in Citizen Science  it no longer has a place for the level of Citizen Science undertaken by Streamwatch volunteers.

In their Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act 2016, USA legislators made a distinction between the activities that generate information for professional scientists, crowdsourcing, and the intensity of agency that ensues from higher levels of participation.

At the Australian Citizen Science Conference last year all levels of Citizen Science engagement  were explored.  When the Chief Scientist was asked what the stand out program was for him he named Safecast .

Safecast was established in response to the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster. At that time, obtaining accurate radiation measurements was critical, geiger counters were in demand, and trust in the government was low. A small group launched Safecast and issued DIY geiger counters for citizens to monitor radiation levels.  A brief history outlined on the Safecast website describes how the volunteers engaged with the issues and developed and adapted strategies along their journey.   At this level the power of the citizen is foremost and illustrates the freedom to collaborate and  focus on key concerns.  They are not bound by institutional protocols.  In similar vein is an account provided by Gayle Adams, a Streamwatch volunteer who coordinated a monitoring program on the Cook’s River for the Cooks River Valley Association.

The existing 53 Streamwatch groups are all active and respected in local communities – Still Creek group is one of those.   Still Creek volunteers are members of Landcare and of the broader Galston Community.  Details of their activities are recorded on their own website as well as on the community website.   When they were advised that the Museum would not continue to host the program, nor Sydney Water fund it, they sought assistance from Hornsby Council.  More recently in an interview on  Eastside Radio the coordinator explained the multifaceted role undertaken as a Streamwatch steward of Still Creek.

Citizen Science undertaken by Streamwatch volunteers goes above and beyond ‘crowdsourcing’.   Streamwatchers don’t wait for permission, they know and most importantly are prepared  to put science into action.  That action may involve alerting the NSW EPA or their local Councils if there is a pollution event or the Department of Primary Industries if there are noxious weeds or other biosecurity threats.  Nor do they shy away if action is not taken by authorities, as evidenced by Margaret and Bryan Smith.

While identifying and recording frog locations is vital and the smart phone based program  deserving of all the accolades received, local stewards are also needed to secure our local waterways, to campaign for protection of the riparian zone, to maintain habitat for frogs and other species.  In 2015 the Museum recognised that programs such as Frog ID were complemented by Streamwatch.  What changed? Why is an institution that has assumed leadership in Citizen Science nationally no longer prepared to support a high level Citizen Science program?