Involve citizens in air quality research to improve it, study finds

People taking part in air quality research should be involved at every stage to help them understand how air pollution affects them, a new University of Surrey study has found.

Researchers from the university’s Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE), working on the European research project iSCAPE, said that a multi-faceted ‘citizen science’ approach to air quality research helps to enhance public understanding of air pollution.

The paper, published in the journal Sustainable Cities and Society, concluded that people should be encouraged to work in co-operation with researchers to identify problems relating to air pollution, come up with research methods and draw conclusions.

Professor Prashant Kumar, director of GCARE at the University of Surrey, said: ‘Until recently, citizens’ involvement in air quality research has been limited to monitoring their environment and raising awareness of pollution in their local area, while tasks such as the design, planning and analysis of research were carried out by scientists.

‘What we have found is that when local residents play an integral part in scientific research, they acquire knowledge that can more directly impact their day-to-day lives and actions.

‘Citizens should no longer be treated as participants of a study; we should rather embrace them as partners. This work is an example of bringing together citizens and their representatives, public authorities and researchers for all-round actions against pollution.’

GCARE’s ‘citizen science’ approach was based on the three key ideas of inclusion, collaboration and reciprocation, and was carried out via a ‘Living Lab’ in Guildford set up specifically for the iSCAPE project.

The strategy focused on staging seminars involving people from different walks of life, setting up a dialogue between researchers, citizens and policymakers, and encouraging citizens to debate research with each other.

Scientists also used questionnaires and interactive quizzes to monitor people’s perceptions of their exposure to air pollution, and allowed individuals to conduct their own air monitoring studies by giving them low-cost sensors.

Consequently, citizens were able to create ‘detailed’ and ‘well thought out’ investigations looking into issues like how the air quality inside their homes changed at different times of day, and how traffic jams worsen air quality in nearby residential areas.

The scientists concluded that in addition to producing ‘insightful’ data, involving citizens in air quality monitoring can enhance partnerships between researchers and their local communities.

Guildford Borough Council, a stakeholder in the project, said the study shows it is possible to engage with communities about air pollution differently to the ways simply required by law.

Cllr Caroline Reeves, leader of Guildford Borough Council, said: ‘The involvement of members of our community with the work done at the University of Surrey has highlighted the interest in the issues around air quality in a very strong and meaningful way.

‘Residents and businesses have far greater awareness, and are keen to find resolutions to the problems rather than dismissing it at someone else’s problem. It has meant that air quality is very high on the list of targets to be addressed locally as well as nationally.’

The study may now help other researchers and councils work with local communities on air pollution issues.

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