Do you like nature but aren’t trained as a biologist, so you don’t think you can make a difference except through monetary contributions to conservation organizations? Do you just plain old have the desire to help make an impact but don’t know how? Luckily, anybody now can, as conservation and scientific groups are leaning more and more on everyday citizens to help them gather valuable data that limited personnel and funding would never cover with the help of citizen scientists.
Citizen science, also known by a number of other names such as crowd science and networked science, also has a number of different definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary, as quoted by Wikipedia, defines citizen science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” It is a very old practice with a modern term. Famous citizen scientists throughout history include well-known names like Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin – all amateurs whose own natural interest led them to tinker and observe, and ultimately make history-changing discoveries. In more modern times, such as the first half of the 20th century, science was considered work of universities and government research laboratories, a sentiment that is still much regarded today, perhaps for lack of knowledge that nature and science study are available to anyone who has the interest and makes the time to study and collect data. Luckily, both citizen and professional scientists seem to be returning to a place of appreciation for the quality of data that is able to be collected by everyday citizens, as well as for the sheer quantity of data gathered by many extra eyes, ears, hands and minds. For the everyday citizen who doesn’t have the option to enter the competitive and costly field of astronomy, a neat hobby can also make a contribution to greater science through the American Association of Variable Observers, for example.
The duration, difficulty, location and prior experience necessary for the data collection varies depending on the organization collecting the data. Some organizations ask participants to collect data over a number of days for a certain length of time each of those days. The Great Backyard Bird Count, a collaboration between Cornell University, The National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada, asks participants to observe birds outside their own home for as little as 15 minutes a day over a four-day span. Participants then upload their data into the website and the organizations do the rest. The data is used to give ornithologists an idea of species distributions, particularly as some species’ ranges are expanding and some are shrinking due to global warming, and to track declines in population numbers over time. The data is valuable because the quantity is such that professional scientists could never collect all of it, and it includes data from private lands that would be excluded in most, if not all, professional studies.
If birds aren’t your thing, FrogWatch USA, organized by the Associaton of Zoos and Aquariums, is another interesting and fun citizen science activity that encourages the everyday citizen to get outside at dusk to used their ears to collect data on local frogs and toads in their area. Volunteers are able to also view data and maps plotting the citizen data that has been collected to see what shifts have occurred over the 15 years that the program has been in action. Participants are required to attend a one-day training or take an online training course that includes learning frog and toad calls and data collection protocols. This is a great project to participate in with children.
For those interested in making a difference while on vacation, EarthWatch Institute has well organized trips in which citizens work directly with scientists collecting data. Volunteers can choose from Ocean Health, Wildlife and Ecosystems, Archeology and Culture, and Climate Change research projects. Each trip includes multiple types of research to be collected, and my understanding is that participants can partake in the projects that most interest them and choose the physical activity level that they are able to do. These trips go all over the world and for the everyday citizen can be an exciting way to get down in the trenches with real wildlife and return home with the satisfaction of making a difference.
Not all studies have to be driven by a pre-organized research project or institution though. For example, a person who regularly keeps a feeder filled with birdseed throughout part or all of the year could keep a daily journal of species that visit their yard. To improve their data, they could add time of day the bird was seen, the number individuals observed, and the weather conditions. Nature journals can be kept on wildflowers, wildlife, trees, observations made on a daily or weekly walk through the park, a green spot visited during lunch break, etc. The important thing is that it be kept consistently, though even that can be variable if the observations are only meant to be made for a certain time of the year. Data collected over multiple years is supremely useful to biological scientists, as it helps them to study the patterns of changes and fluctuations in populations or the environment. One set of data points is merely anecdotal, but consistent data over time is revealing. Once you have years worth of data, perusing the web for organizations that might want it, or contacting local universities with strong programs in the field will help you find it’s place.
If you want more information on other nature and science citizen science organizations, check out Wikipedia for some links to organizations in the leading fields. Little Facts About Science is another site with daily posts and related links to citizen science projects; if you currently don’t have a favored interest, this sight might help you figure out what you like best. As well, whether you like bugs or technology, sharks or archeology, any aspect of nature or science probably has a citizen science project going on, so do a simple search on the internet to see what comes up, then get involved! It’s ok to start out small, and great to do your part at all. Many of the projects are also fun to do with children, will help spark their natural interest in the world around them, teach them how they too can make a difference, so include your kids in your interests and help them grow!
Share your thoughts: What citizen science projects have you been involved in and how did you find the experience?