Some citizen science (CS) projects have been developed in environmental science to monitor air and noise pollution, and water quality related to citizens concerns. Nevertheless, CS projects related to environmental epidemiology are limited because of the little attention paid to evaluate environmental exposures’ and their association with health effects. The CitieS-Health project, funded by the European Commission under the H2020 program, aims to promote the understanding and application of CS in environmental epidemiology. 

“There are many shared points between CS and other participatory approaches in environmental epidemiology. For example, CS can foster the democratization of scientific governance and enhance the sustainability of research projects more effectively than other existing participatory approaches”, Xavier Basagaña, researcher at ISGlobal and principal investigator of CitieS-Health, commented. 

A recent paper, published in Environment International and led by Frédérique (Fleur) Froeling and Florence Gignac, has identified various challenges and opportunities specific to the implementation of co-created CS projects in environmental epidemiology. Froeling, researcher at Utrecht University working on the CitieS-Health Dutch pilot project, indicated that “The development of more relevant research designs, using local knowledge, obtaining ethical clearance, and co-analysing the association between exposure and health, brings opportunities and challenges that require epidemiologists to go beyond the traditional research framework and include more outreach activities”. 

Continued efforts, particularly the sharing of information about projects’ collaborative processes, are needed to make CS a more specific approach in environmental epidemiology. Co-created CS has the opportunity to redefine the relations between epidemiology experts and the lay public, and transform the local production of knowledge into a more inclusive and sustainable process. “Researchers are encouraged to consider how they can bridge the gap between science and society, by recognising that any citizen collaboration is better than none. Articles in environmental health research claiming to be, or claiming to have applied CS, rarely share any information about how they applied CS in their research process. Consequently, this makes it difficult for experts to develop a cohesive comprehension of what CS means in environmental epidemiology and how to implement it accordingly. As such, we think it is important to encourage experts in our field to elaborate on how their studies were conducted with citizens via reports or scientific publications”, specified Gignac, researcher at ISGlobal.  This will help shed light on the co-creation processes needed to make CS a more tangible approach, and help develop a more complete ethical framework for CS in environmental epidemiology. 


Image: How citizens become involved in scientific research through either ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, ‘involvement’ or a combination of these three forms of inclusion. Figure adapted from Woolley et al., 2016. 

More effort is needed to better prepare citizens for their inclusion in co-created CS environmental health studies via guidelines or co-design training sessions but also to better prepare epidemiologists for civic inclusion in the studies. “This paper is one of the first attempts to thoroughly differentiate what CS entails in environmental epidemiology. Though CS bears common points with other participatory approaches applied in environmental health studies, it is clear that more inclusive research practices such as co-created CS yield a wider array of benefits for both experts and citizens”, Basagaña concluded.


Reference: Narrative review of citizen science in environmental epidemiology: Setting the stage for co-created research projects in environmental epidemiology. Froeling F. et al . Environment International. Volume 152, July 2021, 106470. Received 5 December 2020, Accepted 16 February 2021, Available online 5 March 2021.