Citizen Scientists to the Rescue


Out of the nearly 7 billion people on the planet right now, how many are considered scientists?  Well, if we use the definition of a citizen scientist, there are a lot more of them than you’d think! Anyone can be a citizen scientist… no special degree or years in a classroom needed.  If you think you can’t be a citizen scientist, think again!

Citizen Science is used to describe projects where people with little scientific background get involved with scientific observations and measurements.  These volunteers typically do not analyze the data on their own; it is used by professional scientists to fill in research gaps with data that they could not have collected on their own, due to geography, time or monetary shortcomings.  Informal citizen science work has been done for decades.  Any time someone picks up their binoculars and records the birds that they see, or any time a farmer keeps track of the blooming time of their crops, they are participating in citizen science.  Citizen science is all about recording observations.  Yet it wasn’t until recently that the term took shape.  (From my article on citizen science in the spring 2011 issue of Keystone Wild!Notes)

Citizen scientists use website databases like eBird, Project BudBurst, the Phenology Network and others to record their data.  Professional scientists can then access this information to help support their research.  Citizen scientists allow for data collection worldwide, 24/7, with little monetary effort and no payroll to worry about.  People just like you are contributing to the collection of scientific data that can help protect species, preserve habitats and monitor for possible climate change impacts.

And that’s why citizen scientists are so important.  They do what regular scientists don’t have the time or resources to do.  And with the data from thousands of citizen scientists across the globe, imagine the monitoring power possible! As one of my colleagues, Brook Lenker, says, “Citizen Science is a way to unplug from electronic distractions and plug-in to the environment that sustains us.  If we can help make that connection and it endures, then our collective future will be much brighter.  Citizen science is a tool to uncover trends and secrets about the natural world, but it also an intervention to mend broken relationships between people and nature: an excuse for human-kind to look, see and realize what they’ve been missing.”   

Want to learn more about becoming a citizen scientist?  The Pa. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has a new web video series called Science Afield and it’s dedicated to promoting the cause of citizen science.  Check out the first video, “Citizens Count,” at: http://www.iconservepa.org/csi/scienceafield/index.htm (You might recognize someone from the video).

And be sure to check the site every other month as new videos come online.  Future topics include invasive species, phenology, weather and species migrations. 

Are you ready to become a citizen scientist?

3 Comments

  1. Posted June 20, 2011 at 10:38 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Public participation in science may be the “saving grace” as far as ecological monitoring given the relative lack of funds for ecology and conservation and the shortage of naturalists in the scientific community to cover as much ground as is needed. Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, the PA Breeding Bird Atlas project and the Eastern PA Phenology Project http://watchingtheseasons.blogspot.com/ are other examples of projects that you can become involved in!

  2. ebnifkin
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 11:43 AM | Permalink | Reply

    The only problem with “citizen science” is “garbage in, garbage out” If one looks at the skill sets brought to the projects by the citizens who participate, one finds an extremely broad range of abilities. From the trained scientist working outside of his/her actual field of study to the well-intentioned, but uninformed, proverbial “little old lady in tennis shoes”, the capabilities of the various individuals involved are so diverse as to make any data collected virtually meaningless.

    Certainly, the large pool of data collected may tend to offset any one particular piece of “garbage”, but how does one determine if there is only one piece of “garbage” in the pool? “Is citizen science actually junk science?” should be the first question to be asked.

    Getting citizens out in the field and fostering their interest in flora and fauna is important and vital if our civilization is not to devolve into a totally artificial plasticized culture. But let us not fool ourselves into believing that “citizen science” is anything except junk science. Let the citizens enjoy the birds, butterflies, flowers or anything else they find interesting in the natural world. But let us not deceive them and delude ourselves by saying they are doing science.

  3. Posted January 21, 2012 at 1:57 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I hadn’t previously seen the response above until today. Given the rapidly increasing number of peer reviewed publications in prestigous journals involving citizen science, the significant involvement of prestiguous labs like the Cornell Lab of Ornithiology, and growing list of projects (i.e. see http://www.scientificamerican.com/citizen-science/), I would question the statement that citizen science is “garbage in, garbage out”.

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