Is citizen science a potential harm for the environment?

Are they dangerous for the environment?

Timo Goeschl and Ole Juergens from Heidelberg University (Germany) have just published a provocative paper (paywalled, but a similar argument can be found here) about the impact of citizen science on the overall environmental quality. According to the abstract of their paper, they “show that improved citizen monitoring can even have adverse effects on environmental quality”.

Well, this seems quite a bad news for the growing community of professional and citizen scientists (such as everyAware) working on the subject: this movement hopes that turning citizens into environmental probes will create a greater pressure onto policy-makers and companies, forcing them to enforce environment-friendly policies and industrial activities. But is it right?

Goetschl and Juergens show by a simple game-theoretical model that if the reporting capability of citizen scientists increases, the cost for industries and regulators will increase too and the social welfare does not necessarily increase accordingly: in fact, substitution effects may lead regulators and industries to lose efficiency and the social welfare gain could be negative. The authors explain in the conclusions:

” (…) the overall welfare effects of enhancing citizens’ reporting capability can be positive, but also negative. The reason is that while citizen welfare unambiguously increases, expected inspection, investigation, and compliance  costs increase. The net impact can therefore be a social loss. The reasons for this are perfectly Coasean: Both citizen and firm fail to take into account the externalities of their behavioral adjustments on the welfare-maximizing regulator. Since the regulator moves last, he cannot perfectly offset the strategic incentives that the citizen faces and that lead him to exploit the possibility provided by improvements in the reporting capability to pass on some of the costs of harm reduction to the regulator and, hence, general welfare.”

However, this does not imply that citizens should stop monitoring their habitat. It only shows that a participated environmental policy-making is not just a matter of sensor hacking, but requires an ongoing dialogue between concerned communities and regulators. On one hand, regulators dealing with complex systems should take into account multiple interlinked aspects in order to extract the maximum welfare from citizens self-managed effort. On the other hand, citizens cannot bind themselves to monitor firms and react to their misbehaving: they should use an analogue  effort to monitor policy-makers and strengthen the pressure on them.

Timo Goeschl and Ole Jürgens, “Environmental quality and welfare effects of improving the reporting capability of citizen monitoring schemes”, Journal of Regulatory Economics, available online from March 28, 2012

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