Open Air Laboratories creates a million new explorers thanks to National Lottery funding

Over one million across the UK have taken part in a unique scheme that allows them to contribute to scientific research through exploring their local green spaces.

The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project, led by Imperial College London and backed by National Lottery players through the Big Lottery Fund, has brought communities and scientists together to gather environmental evidence and inform wider scientific enquiry. 

Activities including counting bugs, checking trees for signs of disease or recording sightings of the invasive New Zealand flatworm, have inspired local people to rediscover the outdoors. Research areas have included soil, air quality, water, climate, biodiversity and tree health, as well as investigations into invasive species.

Getting people involved 

As well as encouraging the one million people across the UK to get involved, OPAL, based in the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, has also trained over 4,300 teachers to deliver outdoor learning, getting pupils out of the classroom and bringing lessons to life.

OPAL’s Community Scientists (local environment and engagement experts), based at partner organisations across the UK (such as universities, museums and wildlife charities), have empowered people from a huge variety of backgrounds to get closer to nature, carrying out OPAL’s nature surveys everywhere from inner-city housing estates to remote rural areas. Over 20% of those taking part in OPAL have been from hard-to-reach groups, living in socio-economically deprived areas or from minority sectors of society.

Local participation

For many, OPAL has played a significant part in creating greater environmental awareness. After taking part in the OPAL Air Survey in early 2017, OPAL participant Michelle Farmer led a campaign to improve air quality in Cambuslang, on the outskirts of Glasgow. 

“I’d never paid any attention to air quality, but taking part in the survey really opened my eyes,” she says. After hearing that pollution levels in her local area exceeded EU recommended levels, she brought up the matter with her local community council and contacted MSP Clare Haughey, who raised the issue in Parliament. “The basic knowledge and support I received from OPAL gave me the confidence to challenge the council and call for better monitoring of local air quality,” Ms Farmer added. 

Sam Crowther has participated in many OPAL surveys and was crowned a ‘Community Champion’. He said: “After doing the range of OPAL surveys I appreciated how my handful of results contributed to the big picture, and that however small my contribution it provided another part of a large and complex jigsaw. 

“The direction I have taken in my further studies, towards a degree in physics looking at the physics of biology, is a direct influence of the time completing OPAL surveys and the opportunities I have had through the OPAL team, for which I will be forever thankful.”

Dr David Slawson, Director of OPAL, said: “It’s incredible to know that OPAL has touched the lives of many who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to experience and connect with nature. It is so encouraging that taking part in OPAL helped them take the vital first step of a journey towards greater environmental awareness.

“OPAL has become a world leader in engaging people from all backgrounds with science and nature, we are striving to support the next million people to set off on their environmental learning journey. A good start would be mobilising people to do their bit to help Government achieve the ambitious aim in the 25 Year Environment Plan that our generation should be the first to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”

Funding OPAL 

The Big Lottery Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK, has funded OPAL for 11 years to carry out its research. In 2013 funds were awarded to develop the project across the UK and build sustainability.

Joe Ferns, UK Funding Director at the Big Lottery Fund, said: “It’s great to see National Lottery money has given a million people the opportunity to improve their local green spaces, explore the great outdoors and play a part in a citizen led scientific study into the environment. We’re proud our funding for this phase of OPAL is ending on such a high having successfully brought communities together to gain new experiences and knowledge, and to take steps to improve their local green spaces.”

Staying involved 

For the next phase, one way for people to stay involved is to help the nation’s threatened bees. After taking part in OPAL’s Polli:Nation survey and creating habitat for pollinating insects in their school, a group of pupils from St Alban’s Primary School in Hampshire were inspired to take things one step further. Since last summer, they have been recruiting members of their local community to sign up to the ’Pollinator Promise’ and pledge to grow pollinator friendly plants at home, even if they only have a window box. Over 130 people have made the pledge, including parents, local church members and MP Alan Mak.

Make your promise and get tips on what to plant on the OPAL website. As Laura, a Year 6 pupil at St Alban’s says: “Pollinator Promise is not just for our school but for everyone.”

Are you one of the one million people who have taken part in OPAL activities over the years? We want to hear from you! Share your memories or pictures of OPAL on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram from 19 – 24 February using the hashtag #OPALmillion


The NBN has been a long term supporter and partner in OPAL and developed Indicia, the online recording system, as part of the project.

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