Brace Yourself For the Comeback of Citizen Scientists


Richard Battarbee spent his entire life studying freshwater ecology as an academic at University College London—but it was only when he retired to Yorkshire that he found himself on the frontline of a battle to save a river. Fishermen in the town of Ilkley near where he lived started catching condoms, wet wipes and sanitary towels on their lines. Residents were noticing that fish and other animals were dying en masse. The water was discolored every time it rained heavily. Something was wrong in the river Wharfe.

Battarbee, along with other local members of the Wharfedale Naturalists Society, suspected that the real cause of the pollution was a sewage outflow further down the river run by Yorkshire Water, the region’s privatized water company.

But when the government and Yorkshire Water all refused to help, the residents of Ilkley turned to citizen science, research conducted by the general public that is not only helping to change the way citizens protect their environment, but making many question the entirety of our scientific institutions.

That can range from designing and leading studies into certain issues to just helping to collate data on something.

In Ilkley, residents’ concerns were rebuffed by the council and Yorkshire Water, the local water company responsible for sewage outflow into the river. The UK’s Environment Agency (EA), whose budget has been slashed from £120m to £48m since 2010, said it wasn’t able to investigate or even monitor the river’s contamination.

Unable to get help, locals now working under the name the Ilkley Clean River Group, took it on themselves to scientifically prove the extent of the problem.

Battarbee suspected the real threat wasn’t the rubbish and excrement you could see, but the invisible pathogens that now filled the river—a popular wild swimming spot for thousands of people each year. “There was absolutely no data on the concentration of pathogens in the river associated with effluent going into it,” he explains. “I couldn’t find any protocols out there, so I just did what any scientist would do really and looked at the literature and worked out a methodology.”

But running a scientific study with a group of volunteer citizens is harder than it seems. Unable to rely on university grants like most scientists, the Ilkley Clean River Group had to raise the money to pay for professional water sampling themselves. Then there was gathering the samples themselves—leading a group of untrained locals to collect up to 100 samples from different parts of the river. Once they had the samples, each had to be properly stored below eight degrees Celsius and sent to a lab in Coventry in 24 hours, in order to get any reliable results.

In the end, Battarbee’s research found sky-high levels of pathogens in the river, caused by the dumping of sewage. According to their data, the water near the sewage outflows in Ilkley contained between 32 and 43 times the amounts of E. coli bacteria acceptable for a recreational bathing site.



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