Notes from the Mutual Learning Exercise (MLE) visit to Germany – 8 Nov 2022

The second day of the MLE visit to Berlin started with a focus on Plastic Pirates and the development of the project. The presentation was given by the PP team – Johaness, Valerie, Sarah, and Philip.

The original initiative started during the EU presidency of Germany. This project is an example of the political interest and political will that was helping at the national level. The national project was running from 2016-2017, and in 2019 and 2020, the government of Germany, Slovenia, and Portugal identified it as an area where they can find a mutual interest. The agreement on the project was stated between the ministries that are responsible for science and research. A formal decision was made in Berlin three years ago, with the implementing organisations discussing the specific details about the adaption of the project to each context. The main effort was dedicated to the development of the material so it can relate to each country. It 2020, despite the problem of the pandemic, there was an effort in progressing with the trial campaign. At the same time, in mid-2020, there was an effort from the German ministry promoting citizen science as a priority for the European Research Area – more member states expressed an interest to join. It was possible to integrate it into the policy agenda, which noted the Plastic Pirate was noted in policy documents, mentioned by the commissioners, and high-level visible activities – so it is mentioned in the ERA policy for 2022-2024. It was pushed by the three countries into the European level. More member states, such as Bulgaria, joined in 2021.

Valerie Knapp from the Ruhr University in Bochum (RUB) talked about the accompanying research – it can serve different forms about the research question that is addressed in the project, and there are questions about citizen science as an object of research. For example, knowledge gain or impact. What kind of accompanying research for the scaling up research means that they want to study the effects of scaling across Germany, Slovenia, and Portugal. Because of the scale, it requires the use of a standard survey, and that limits the type of questions that can be asked. For example, identified teachers as change agents and wanted to find what are the characteristics of the teachers that participate in citizen science in school. The survey covered 4 periods with pre and post surveys of teachers. So they could cover two periods in 2021 and 2022. The teacher panel provides descriptive information but not causation. They used a willingness to innovate and teachers scored high on the scale (Emmrich 2009), or the Tappe 2018 scale on expected benefits which showed a high level of expected benefits. The large scale of the project provides a large-scale assessment and correlational research design but there are problems such as “one size does not fit all” – you need to take into account the translation of instruments such as surveys, and there will be a loss in translation. For example, how general trust and relationships with science are linked to observed activities. There are problems with a casual design. What is possible is to carry out a student survey and randomised controlled field trials on a smaller sample that will allow a better understanding of participation as the dependent variable. They did the activities with an experimental group where there is conscious participation – making sure that the process is very similar. The control group was not knowing that they are doing citizen science. The data collection just ended and they are looking at the data – early analysis shows that there is an increase in scientific working methods when the students know that they participate in a scientific project.

There is a need for better research designs to include causal evidence about citizen science, and accompanying research is needed in the planning stages. The scaling of citizen science projects should be accompanied by the establishment of European research-practice partnerships.

Philip looked at EU action in Horizon Europe Mission Ocean – it is close to full Europeanisation. There is a PlasticPiratesEU action as a 30-month CSA for the project. The first objective is the Europeanisation of the project; assessment and monitoring of plastic litter in coasts and sea, linked to the Mission of researching ocean and water. So the effort includes the issue of reaching out to 27 countries + ERA countries, there are the Marine and Water directives, data is needed from coasts and seas, and the European Year of the Youth is 2022 which needs to be linked as soon as the project started. They needed to consider outreach to the national educational system. Need to also consider sustainability beyond the 30 months of the project. So that approach led to a top-down approach, reaching out to ERA forum representatives. They were to have a pilot phase to help set it up in countries that are interested and provide support and funding to start a campaign. Institutions were identified by the ministries and funding agencies. Now they are building a community of local partner institutions in 11 countries and then working on a “train the trainers” model. They are gathering experience from the different participating countries and how to adjust the protocol to improve it. The first sampling campaign is just ending.

Sarah covered the actual implementation. The perspective from local partners was provided through a survey with 11 responses from eight countries,. The success factors that they identified include the relevance of the topic, the target group of students, public attention, good preparation through coordination, easy-to-follow protocol, the fact that material is already available the need for European-wide data, and approaching teachers through the ministry.

In terms of challenges, issues such as timeframe, finding the dates for the sampling within a busy schedule in schools, there are also different river and weather conditions from the original design in German, and the material such as requiring too much for teachers that only want to focus on sampling.

They also evaluated the alignment with social and educational values in the countries – so there was general agreement, but some minor limitations such as limited inclusion and bias towards participating schools, language restrictions in multilingual countries and the who area of digitalisation and reliance on smartphones.

Questions – how the project relates to other plastic pollution initiatives that exist in Europe? this comes up frequently, and they pushed it during the timescales, however, they are starting to link to other citizen science campaigns that are running – e.g. Marine Litter Watch and there is also a lot of knowledge with local partners on what is happening in their countries. They need to work with the local partners on how they can link to other initiatives.

In terms of the data collected, there are issues with the researchers – there are already scientific publications that show hot spots that slow down the rivers. Data standardization is a very important one to be able to use, potentially also across projects where things can be compared from different sources. There is also insight into the amounts and the types of plastics that are flowing down rivers.

About the voice of the students – there are voices of students that were done from the survey on their general environmental awareness, but not a deliberate evaluation and the effect. The open answer was more for the teachers. The teachers are reporting a lot of positive aspects and communicating the reactions of the students. The Microplastic net is giving and they get insights from local partners.

The business plan is something that they are engaging with ministries and funding agencies so they can integrate it into their policy agenda so it is integrated with future activities. There is already thinking about linking the Plastic Pirates to existing funding lines and practices.

They develop criteria and methods for the integration and extension of plastic pirates to more countries – from access to a research facility, to an existing network of schools and to interest in citizen science. So looking for a competent partner that can implement the project. There is also the potential of running the project with different groups of participants and not only with schools.

The third workshop session asked questions about the scaling up of citizen science in terms of the roadmap for policymakers – identifying routes for supporting the scaling up of button-up initiatives? How we can think of suitable funding mechanisms? What kind of alternative business models should be developed?

The discussion in the different groups is captured below

Some of the points that were identified: being responsible about the scaling up and, different directions of scaling: up, down, deep, wide…; the importance of language while considering the cultural and scientific approach – including interoperability. Considering local and global concerns; thinking about legal and political concerns; triangulation with proof of value and the need to address different values.

The discussion ended with identifying the mutual learning from the whole exercise, with the different countries sharing their learning and action.

Some of the learning and actions that were captured during the MLE include

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