Why China needs citizen science (CS)?

Citizen science originated in North America and Europe and now seems to have become increasing popularly across other continents, including Africa, South America, and Asia[1]. In Asia, many projects have emerged in Japan (e.g. Safecast)[2], and India (e.g. Biodiversity Atlas) [3], which are the second and third largest Asian economies. However, only a few projects are active in China. As the largest economy in Asia and the second largest economy in the world, it is time for China to expand application of citizen science, largely for the three reasons below. 

Citizen science can be a key to enhancing Innovation

When influencing a country’s innovation, one of the essential factors is civic scientific literacy (CSL). Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed a similar opinion: scientific and technological innovation depends on the improvement of CSL in the 2018 World Public Science Quality Promotion Conference[4]. However, only 8.47% of (according to the 2018 survey) [5] Chinese people have reached this requirement, even lower than the US and UK rates in 1995 (which were 12% and 10% respectively) [6].This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wechatimg5.png                                    Changes in the China’s civic scientific literacy from 2005 to 2018                                                                                Source: China Research Institute For Science Popularization, 2018

Citizen science could be the key for China to break this bottleneck by bringing opportunities for citizens to participate in scientific research, having lower costs and abundant resources compared to a traditional education system. Additionally, with the development of the internet and smartphones, CS is not only about field trips or experiments or other formal scientific activities. It can also include gamification, apps and online communities covering different fields (e.g. oceanography, agriculture, art history). For example, ClickWorkers is a small, game-based NASA project that uses public volunteers to identify Martian craters[7], which can be developed into similar gamified projects in China to classify galaxies.

Citizen science can be a bridge to strengthen links between policy-makers & citizens

China’s traditional Confucian view states that governing a country should consider the people’s opinions, but China’s governance model has continued to be closed to the governed[8]. Such a model can be efficient in policy implementation, but it has been much weaker in terms of sensitivity and responsiveness to public opinions and perceptions. For example, in early 2019, the Chinese government tried to implement waste sorting, first in Shanghai. Then in July 2019, Shanghai started enforcing its first regulation on domestic waste management, joining other large Chinese cities piloting a policy to make waste classification compulsory, instead of voluntary[9]. However, this has led to some citizens finding waste sorting difficult yet they are afraid of being punished, so they choose to dump garbage in the middle of the night.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wechatimg41.jpeg                                      Credit to Grace Guan and her video ” Encircled Shanghai”

The development of a market economy and the diversification of interests in Chinese society have undermined the foundation of the old governing model. A new model is being encouraged to emerge, that is a “participatory model[8].” Let’s imagine, before the recent waste management regulation had been launched, that the local government obtained citizens’ views about waste classification to learn if people would know how to identify every type of rubbish. By doing this, maybe the present situation could have been improved through starting with two major types of waste classification, particularly as citizens had barely been provided with such knowledge before the regulation was brought in. This type of data could have been collected through a citizen science approach, for instance, developing a project encouraging people to go outside and pick up litter to attract others’  attention to this. That could have been the best time to talk to them about why litter prevention matters. Additionally, taking before-and-after pictures of the areas tidied could also have inspired followers to take action and results from such a project could have been used to inform the garbage regulation implementation process.

Citizen science can be an instrument to solve gaps on the SDGs 2030 agenda

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) has launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for citizens’ prosperity globally with an aim of achieving them by 2030. All goals are accepted and should be implemented by the 193-member states[10], including China. In recent years, China has been taking on its responsibilities and efforts for the SDGs. These are shown in the overall layout of the “five-in-one”- the fully integrated advancement of economic, political, cultural, social and ecological civilisation constructions[11], under which the successful practical cases are in poverty alleviation, innovative development, ecological protection, rural revitalisation, and joint construction of the “Belt and Road[12].” Since the approval of the SDG agenda in September 2015, the Chinese government has made progress in achieving all Goals. At the 74th UN meeting, the Chinese delegate released the 2030 Progress Report (2019) to review China’s four-year progress in SDGs and share successful case studies from China[12]. However, gaps still exist.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wechatimg3.png                                       Source: Sustainable Development Report Dashboards 2019

Only three goals in China are on track for achievement by 2030, while 6 goals still lack data that can be evaluated. Here is a potential opportunity for citizen science as a promising instrument, accepted by many developed countries (e.g. EU countries and the US), to foster innovation in SDGs[13]. Understanding the CS definition, its link to development situations and approaches could bring China new scope for its SDGs’ monitoring, development plan and enhancing citizens’ understanding of science. Learning from successful CS cases applied into SDGs on a global scale could attract attention from governments and businesses that might support and enable China to be stronger and faster in the process of it.

To summarise, although CS is in its infancy in China and its development mainly depends on local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or individuals, it could indeed bring innovation in addition to strengthening links between Chinese citizens and the Chinese government, which is currently transforming its governance model into a “participatory” one to drive its “five-in-one” to align with the 2030 agenda.


  1. En.Wikipedia.org, 2005. Citizen science. s.l. Wikipedia Foundation. [online]Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_science [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  2. Safecast, 2011. Safecast. Japan. Shuttleworth Foundation. [online] Available at: https://blog.safecast.org [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  3. Bioatlasindia.org, 2018. Biodiversity Atlas – India Websites. India. National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS). [online] Available at: https://www.bioatlasindia.org/bai-websites [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  4. Huang, J.W., 2018. Xi sends congratulatory letter to World Conference on Science Literacy. Xinhua Net, 17Sept. [online] Available at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-09/17/c_137474215.htm [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  5. Office for Implementing the Action Plan Outline for Improving People’s Science Literacy, 2018. Report on the construction of public science literacy in China (2018). [online] Beijing: China Research Institute For Science Popularization. Available at: http://www.crsp.org.cn/en/Research/Publications/CSL/092123212018.html [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  6. He, W., Ren, L. and Zhang, C., 2014. Civic Scientific Literacy Survey in China. Journal of Scientific Temper, [online] 2(3&4), pp.169-182. Available at: http://nopr.niscair.res.in/handle/123456789/47246 [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  7. Nasaclickworkers. (2015). Clickworkers. U.S. Nasa.[online] Available at: https://nasaclickworkers.com/classic/ [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  8. Wang, X. and Zhang, Y., 2019. The rise of participatory governance in China: empirical models, theoretical framework, and institutional analysis. Legal Scholarship Repository, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. [online] 13(1), pp.24-71. Available at: https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=alr [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  9. Chinadaily, 2019. The era of compulsory garbage sorting begins. Chinadaily, 24 Jun. [online] Available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201906/24/WS5d10650ba3103dbf14329e23.html [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  10. UN, 2015. “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development“. New York: United Nations – Sustainable Development knowledge platform. Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  11. FAPRC, 2019. China’s Progress Report on Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2019). [online] Beijing: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Available at: http://www.cikd.org/fileCache/pdf/C/China’s%20Progress%20Report%20on%20Implementation%20of%20the%202030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20(2019).pdf.pdf [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  12. Baidu Baike, 2019. “五位一体”总体布局_百度百科. Beijing. Baidu. [online] Available at: https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E2%80%9C%E4%BA%94%E4%BD%8D%E4%B8%80%E4%BD%93%E2%80%9D%E6%80%BB%E4%BD%93%E5%B8%83%E5%B1%80/23151323?fromtitle=%E4%BA%94%E4%BD%8D%E4%B8%80%E4%BD%93&fromid=9729486 [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  13. Hecker, S., et al., 2018. Innovation in Citizen Science – Perspectives on Science-Policy Advances. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 3(1), p.4. [online] Available at: http://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.114 [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].

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