By Yonit Yogev, 1st Year MES Student.
I’ve heard it said that we all start out as little miniature scientists when we’re kids—exploring, wondering, inspired, and curious by how the world works. While many people take that curiosity and run with it into adulthood, there’s a good part of it that remains in most people, even if they choose a totally different career path.
I was fortunate to be able to attend the first annual conference of the Citizen Science Association, called CitSci2015. It preceded and was partly sponsored by the AAAS in San Jose in mid-February. Citizen science holds a certain fascination for me, so I was excited to be able to attend the conference, learn more about citizen science from the inside, network with the many different folks who are involved with it, and contemplate my own place within its wide and open-armed world.
Citizen science, essentially the carrying out of scientific research with the aid of specially trained lay-people, is growing by leaps and bounds. More and more agencies, universities, and organizations of all types and sizes are engaging interested citizens in data collection. The issues and challenges (primarily quality assurance and volunteer retention) are met with creativity, enthusiasm, and excitement. The few remaining skeptics are increasingly going to be left behind, especially as innovative solutions to these problems are quickly found, shared, and implemented. In a time of shrinking budgets, engaging citizens in scientific research makes sense, and can lead to a huge expansion in what scientists can actually achieve.
The conference brought about 600 people from all over the world. The break-out sessions were divided such that each time period had break-out sessions on general themes which included: Broadening engagement to foster diversity and inclusion, Best practices, Tackling grand challenges, Story presentations, digital opportunities, and Education and lifelong learning connections. Some examples included Seventeen Years of Measuring Rain—Experiences from Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network; Creating a Welcoming, Inclusive, Diverse and Just Citizen Science Association; Adopt a Pixel: How Innovative Mobile and Web-Mapping Technologies Are Empowering Local Communities and Transforming Chimpanzee Conservation in Africa; Monarch Citizen Science with Middle Schoolers: A Graduate Student Perspective; Opening up the Zooniverse: Building a Scalable Platform for Online Citizen Science. Crowd-sourcing was a key concept heard throughout the conference. For a two-day conference, there were so many options for sessions, it was difficult to decide which ones to attend!
Mount Rainier National Park
My own interest in citizen science came about a couple of years ago when I began volunteering at Mount Rainier National Park, and stumbled upon a citizen science project that was recruiting for volunteers. My husband and I have participated for two summers now, and intend to stay with it for as long as the study continues. This particular research is looking at the phenology of ten species of sub-alpine wildflowers. We hike a specific trail, our guide pamphlets in hand, which takes us up through about 2,000 ft of elevation. Small quadrants of 1×1 meter are marked in nine places along the length of the hike, and at each point we mark which flowers are in which stages of their seasonal cycle. This is done at least 2-3 times per day for the entire length of the season, from first snow-melt to last seed dispersal and first snow (in that micro-climate, the season is only about 6-8 weeks long)! The researchers hope to learn more about the effects of climate change on the phenology of these flowers, as well as learn to predict the peak flowering. This study is a good example of the types of research that are particularly conducive to using citizen scientists to assist in data collection.
In general, citizen scientists also may be observing animals, plants, or other natural phenomena, often in their own backyards. Sometimes they help with data processing, using computer programs on their home or work computers. They also may assist in public outreach activities.
Wildflowers in Mount Rainier National Park
A deeper dimension of citizen science includes the concept of the “participation of non-scientists in decision-making about policy issues that have scientific or technological components.” (Kristian H. Nielsen, Aarhus Uni, Denmark)
This aspect resonates with the political ecologist in me—I think increasing involvement of non-scientists in the creation and direction of scientific inquiry is basic to democracy, and is critical to keeping science and scientists ‘honest’ and working wholly and purely for the betterment of humankind.
If you’re interested in taking part in a citizen science project, there are many local ones, as well as numerous opportunities to take part in national studies. Google Bioblitz, Nature’s Notebook, Zooniverse, Stream Team, Audubon, COASST, USGS, NPS, DFW, to list just a tiny sample of what’s out there. Whether you participate as a citizen scientist or eventually as a scientist utilizing citizen scientists, this is an up and coming area of research (three of the second-year MES students are doing their thesis on citizen science!) you need to know about—and hugely exciting for everyone involved.