“Citizen science” isn’t the study of all of us who reside in the U.S., but rather a way of collecting information that has become popular in recent years. The phrase refers to volunteers who work as field assistants for scientific studies. In a time when school and natural resources department budgets are tight, using ordinary folks to gather and record wildlife and environmental observations can stretch research dollars by getting reams of data for no cost.
Most of these citizen volunteers aren’t scientists at all, but people who just love the outdoors or who are concerned about environmental trends and problems. Often, interest and passion are their only qualifications regarding scientific work. But while citizen scientists don’t analyze data or write papers, they are responsible for recording the facts that research papers are based on. A case in point is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Citizen Science Program in Ithaca, N.Y., where more than 30 ornithology papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals using data collected by their volunteers.
At REEF, the world’s largest marine-sightings database (more than 138,000 entries so far), recreational snorkelers and divers are recording information about fish population and density. The site’s data has been used in more than 55 scientific papers.
Visitors welcomed with open arms
Not only is citizen science a money-saver for many researchers, it can reduce the time needed to complete a project. Launched in 2007, the Galaxy Zoo website invited its visitors to look at images of a million galaxies taken with a robotic telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Participants were then asked to classify the galaxies as either ellipticals or spirals and — if the galaxy was a spiral — record the direction of its arms. Yale and Oxford astrophysicists estimated that with so many galaxies, it might take at least two years for site visitors to work through them all. Within 24 hours of its launch, however, the site was receiving 70,000 classifications per hour. The project received more than 50 million classifications during its first year, from almost 150,000 people. In addition, a 24-year-old Dutch schoolteacher discovered a never-before-seen astronomical object that is now the subject of two peer-reviewed articles.
Citizen science not only brings researchers benefits in terms of money and time, but also allows them to gather information on a larger geographic scale. Drawing observations from citizen scientists all over the world rather than just those collected traditionally, researchers can gather mass amounts of information, if the volunteers are allowed to record their findings on a website.
When accuracy counts
I’d never suggest that only trained and certified biologists or astrophysicists or climatologists should be allowed to collect information that will be used in scientific studies. A man in Huntersville, N.C., for example, was able to verify that barred owls, once thought to only live in old-growth forests, can also do quite well in cities with mature hardwood trees. He monitored a barred owl nest box on his property with a motion-activated camera.
But having had my own recent experience with citizen science, I’m more aware of how difficult it can be to record what should be even the simplest of observations, such as the number of birds you see before you. In April, I had the opportunity to sit in a plywood box in the middle of 156,000 acres of midwestern grasslands, which served as a blind so I could watch greater prairie chickens “dance” at dawn on their booming grounds. A survey form in the blind asked all observers to record how many chickens were on the grounds in 15-minute intervals. Just before exiting the blind, I counted six birds on the grounds and noted the number on the form. But the moment I stepped outside, 12 birds flushed into the sky. A small dip in the grounds — not noticeable when sitting in the blind — had obscured half of them.
It caused me to wonder what other mistakes have been made in greater prairie chicken surveys — and other wildlife and nature surveys — by amateurs such as myself. A lot of decisions — important ones — are made on such biological reports. Scant funds for wildlife and environmental conservation and management may be allocated the wrong way or worse: lost altogether, if such observational data is wrong.
Do you think it’s a good idea to allow ordinary citizens to gather scientific data that will be used in studies, the results of which might influence how we use and manage our natural resources? Or should such observations be left to trained professionals?
Let me know your thoughts.
Feature photo: Counting greater prairie chickens on their “booming grounds” is an exercise in citizen science. ©John T Andrews