Funding boost for UK citizen science project

A UK-wide citizen project that has attracted almost one million participants has been awarded a further £1.2m of funding.

Peter Ainsworth, chairman of the Big Lottery Fund, said Open Air Laboratories (Opal) got people ‘off their bums’ and into the community.

Opal, founded in 2007, aims to engage people in environmental issues while collecting data for scientific studies.

Mr Ainsworth made the announcement at a conference at Kew Gardens, London.

‘What we love about Opal is the way it gets people involved and gets them away from their computer screens, off their bums and out into the community and finding things out, and being useful,’ he said.

‘While being valuable to scientists, it is also very valuable for people by delivering a really useful social outcome.’

To date, Opal projects have gathered data on a range of issues, including air quality, soil, water and tree health.

The data-collecting programme, led by a team at Imperial College London, aims to:

  • engage people with nature and key environmental issues;
  • provide a learning experience and all the health and well-being benefits from being outdoors;
  • provide valuable data to help professional scientists understand the state of the environment.

In a speech to delegates, Mr Ainsworth said the philosophy of the Big Lottery Fund had moved away from asking people ‘what is the matter with you?’ to asking ‘what matters to you?’

‘People care’

The former MP and chair of the Plantlife charity observed: ‘Policymakers tend to think that it is about health, or education, or it is about crime.

‘It is about all of those things but what really matters to people is the quality of where people live: the design of buildings, the dog [mess] all over playing fields, graffiti on walls. People care about the quality of the places and spaces where they live.’

He told the conference that once you joined up the dots ‘then you get a very powerful narrative about the connection of human beings to the natural world, which sustains every single one of us’.

Opal director David Slawson welcomed the funding, explaining that despite engaging almost more than one million people, there was still further work to do in order to ensure the project reached people that were not being reached at the moment.

He added that one of the key successes of the Opal network was the breadth of benefits that had emerged from the projects.

‘If you look into the depth of the analysis then you find that people become more engaged in the environment; their attitude to the environment has changed, and they have said that their behaviour towards the environment will also change as a result of [taking part in an Opal survey],’ Dr Slawson told BBC News.

‘I think that has really started a pathway towards environmental stewardship, and helping produce the next generation as environmentalists and I desperately hope that we have enthused them so they will do a better job than we have.’


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