The opening page of newly developed National Strategic Plan for Science in Society states: “Science literacy is fundamentally important to the future of young New Zealanders”. I’d change that to “all New Zealanders”.
The pragmatic reason? Depending on which form the roll-out the National Objectives Framework for Freshwater takes, communities may become involved in a collaborative process of determining environmental outcomes for water (as opposed to going through the Schedule 1 RMA process). Without basic scientific literacy, communities values may conflict – in the Waikato for example, locals wanted their lake to have clear water AND koi carp for angling. As a real world scenario? Unlikely.
The Science in Society project is about nurturing curiosity as well as building much needed bridges between those who need to know about science and scientists. A series of inspiring case studies describe e.g., science and technology innovations already happening in New Zealand. Most emphasize that strong collaborations between communities and scientists can evolve irrespective of national programs, however, having a mechanism such as the proposed platform to enhance participation opportunities may prove useful. How the platform will operate is only lightly sketched out:
1. A process for gathering ideas from community members and scientists
2. Evaluation to ensure educational value (if schools are participating), scientific quality, practicality and relevance participants
3. Online match-making for community members and scientists
4. Resources for helping to develop robust, quality projects
As for financial support, “a limited number of seed grants will be made available to help foster a meaningful level of community involvement”. That’s a gap. A big one.
Participatory science features in the Strategic Plan as the glue binding the 3 ‘Action Areas’ together (Enhancing the role of education; Public engaging with science and technology; Science sector engaging with the public). As such, participatory science will involve “schools/kura and/or community-based organisations… in projects with broad appeal… scientific value and pedagogical rigour, and that resonate with the community”.
The Plan suggests that the participatory approach builds on, and enhances traditional citizen science. While this may be true for the social processes promoted, it’s the science outcomes I’m interested in. Traditional citizen science has provided a wealth of valuable data on species populations and distributions as well as environmental health. Those community-generated data feed into management decisions. With the development of a web-based platform to match up interested community members with scientists there is a risk of a piecemeal approach. While the Plan may be strategic, the science outcomes are unlikely to be. From my perspective, this is a missed opportunity to fill gaps in our national data sets – then again, this is not a Ministry for the Environment-driven project. Instead it has been prepared by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Education and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor – hence the overarching educational goals.
For the many community environmental groups – landcare, beachcare, lakecare and the friends of, stewards of, kaitiaki of, that are already engaged in science through their restoration and monitoring activities, what opportunities exist to enhance what they do? Through my interviews, practical suggestions boil down to a need for leadership and resourcing. The seed-funding available through the Science in Society project is designed to part-fund scientists and community/school groups for planning the research question, collecting and analysing the data and developing a strategy for communication the results. Where will funding come from to sustain science activities in the long-term? Extended time series data within a robust research design are the bedrock of useful science. Without it, we may well get more inspiring case studies but without a cohesive, coherent setting – like bits of hokey-pokey without the icecream.
In the National Science Challenges (from which the Strategic Plan grew), citizen science is viewed as “a driver for change”. Under the project by project approach of the Strategic Plan, we risk losing a national oversight. The fact remains that our biodiversity is declining as is the health of our freshwater. We should be aiming for a national picture – the full tub of icecream, not just the tastiest bits.