EPA calls on citizen scientists
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August 25, 2017
EPA calls on citizen scientists

Details are emerging on how the EPA will meet its research and development responsibilities in the face of expected budget cuts for fiscal year (FY) 2018. One approach will involve more voluntary participation by “citizen scientists” in environmental investigations and data collection. The latest development to advance this initiative is EPA’s announcement of projects in 14 states, with at least one project in each of the Agency’s 10 regions; 5 of these projects will use citizen science and crowdsourcing (“crowdsourcing” is collecting information, ideas, and solutions related to specific topics from the public and usually over the Internet; Wikipedia is probably the best-known Internet resource built with crowdsourcing).

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How much will EPA get?

There is significant uncertainty about how large a budget reduction Congress will authorize for the EPA for fiscal year 2018. The Trump administration has proposed a $2.7-billion-dollar reduction, or 31 percent, in the Agency’s appropriations. Congress does not appear inclined to go along with so radical a cut, which would fundamentally end many Agency programs believed to be critical to state environmental efforts. In July, the House Appropriations Committee released a draft bill that would fund the Agency at $7.5 billion, a reduction of $528 million below the FY 2017 enacted level. Current funding for the federal government expires September 30, 2017.

Monitoring, videos, algae

In its project announcement, the EPA views itself as a partner, contributing its expertise to help solve environmental problems that can be national, regional, or state-specific. The selected projects focus on nonpoint source nitrogen pollution, volatile organic compound emissions detection, harmful algal blooms, roadway air pollution near schools, and other environmental and human health issues across the country. A number of the projects involve deployment and testing of new monitoring systems, including nitrogen sensors placed in 200 residential septic systems and a new DNA-based method to detect mussel populations, an indicator of water quality.

EPA’s undertakings involving citizen scientists and crowdsourcing include:

  • Working with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and citizen scientists to build low-cost water quality sensors that allow for continuous data collection of key water quality parameters. Volunteer monitoring groups will deploy these sensors in a continuous monitoring network, and the EPA will evaluate the sensors’ performance as compared to standard equipment.
  • Engaging citizen scientists in Michigan and Wisconsin to analyze videos for habitat characteristics and invasive species to help close current knowledge gaps. This project develops and uses a Web application to test the ability of citizen scientists to evaluate 1,000 underwater videos of the Great Lakes by comparing their analysis to previously collected expert analysis. “This project will demonstrate the effectiveness of citizen scientists’ participation in environmental assessment, potentially reduce costs by two-thirds compared to analysis by experts, and provide needed information for water resource managers,” says the EPA.
  • Capturing crowdsourced data by asking the public to provide information about algae growth along a 59-mile stretch of Montana’s Smith River, a premier recreation destination suffering from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. “By collecting photographs and documenting algae along the river, citizen scientists will provide information that state agencies can use to determine potential causes and solutions,” says the EPA. “Project success will demonstrate that a collaborative partnership between citizens and state and federal programs can contribution [sic] meaningfully to scientific investigation and problem-solving.”

More information about the projects is here.

OMB’s R&D memo

Announcement of the projects occurred in parallel with release of a memo by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on FY 2019 research and development (R&D) budget priorities. Generally, the memo encourages federal agencies to “focus on R&D investments that best serve the American people and are budget neutral.” The OMB also instructs agencies engaged in R&D to rely increasingly on the work of the private sector and minimize efforts already being explored by industry.

The OMB memo is here.

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