Environmental issues are continually coming to the forefront of the attention of the public and government. Awareness of the challenges facing biodiversity and its potential to compromise the future of humankind have meant an ever-increasing demand on scientists to produce reliable analysis. However, obtaining data for sound analysis over a large geographic scale is intensive work and requires a large amount of time and effort. One solution is to draft in even more people to help scientists' work in the field. And this is where citizen scientists come in, to act as a bridge between scientists and data in the field.
Broadly used, "citizen scientist"* refers to a lay person, normally resident in the vicinity of research sites and involved in scientific research. Often, the citizen scientists will not have received formal academic training in the discipline concerned but are trained on the job. They are also often involved in such projects because they are actively interested. Their role is to monitor collected data and to transfer it to managing scientists. This can be done in person or by post, and often was in the past; but with advances in technology it is increasingly being done over the internet.
The participation of citizen scientists in biodiversity monitoring approaches is important for two main reasons. Foremost, it often allows scientists to accomplish research objectives more feasibly, that is in terms of labour and time cost, than would otherwise be possible. In addition, citizen science projects promote public engagement with the particular research, as well as with science in general. This engagement will help people to be more aware and to take ownership of the results and it will empower them to understand global changes in their environment.
Citizen Science projects
There are several examples of citizen scientist projects in the world. Some of the oldest ones dealt with birds for example, a Christmas bird count by the Audubon Society which has been going on for over a century. There also is Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s work (University of Cornell) as well as that of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) here in the UK. More recently, the scope and scale has expanded. For example, localised monitoring of insects in Papua New Guinea (Parataxonomist Training Centre); the global water quality survey by the World Water Monitoring Day project and wild flowers in South Africa (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers).
There are always new projects coming up with the progress of time, research focus and availability of technology.
Citizen Scientists monitoring Snakes-head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), Cricklade North Meadow, Wilts.
Does this work?
The answer is a resounding "Yes". A number of scientific publications have been, and still are, dependent on data collected by citizen scientists. Some often make it to prestigious journals like Science (a classic case is that of the peppered moth, Cooke et al., 1986, 231: 611-613) and Nature (eg Novotny et al. Nature, 2007, 448: 692-695). On a practical level, citizen scientists have helped discover new species, and update the range and conservation status of other species (eg CREW in South Africa). Even when data is not used right now, it is very likely to be of importance in the future (for example, for long term trend monitoring). There is often a legitimate concern about the quality of data, but this can be minimised by taking all precautionary measures and post-collection vetting.
Involving researchers in raising awareness among the public also pays dividends in the form of appreciation and ownership of research. For example, work by paraecologists in Namibia has given researchers feedback on local community research needs and concerns (BIOTA-Africa).
Can you become a citizen scientist?
Definitively yes. The key thing is to find what you are passionate about and then link up with researchers in that field. Often there are projects aimed at involving citizens, and this is by far the easiest way to get involved. For example, the Open University is currently running a project on the evolution of the garden snail (Evolution Megalab). Other useful links are the Open Air Laboratories consortium, based at the Natural History Museum and the Phenology Network of the Woodlands Trust.
Overall, citizen science is gaining increased interest and credibility from both the public and the scientific community. So it is high time to go out and get involved.
* Please note, I am only discussing citizen science from the view point of ecology, my main discipline. However citizen science is applicable to others and has been used in fields as diverse as astronomy and computing!