Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Source: Wikipedia Commons

Citizen Scientists

An interesting report released last week from the UK Environmental Observation Framework reveals the benefit of citizen scientists to governmental environmental organisations. The Nerc Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Natural History Museum in London, reviewed 234 projects – ranging from small surveys to large-scale programmes. The results found the involvement of volunteers offers “high value to research, policy and practice”.

Given the increasing number of complex scientific problems facing our communities, states and countries; coupled with the ever dwindling supply of cash on hand to fund research projects, it behooves governments to dial into this untapped source of volunteer environmental monitors and data collection specialists. People enjoy going to their local botanical gardens, taking the kids and grandkids to learn about the natural world surrounding them. A large majority of the population love their parks for taking walks and having picnics and for exercise. They want to see these lands, with the flora and fauna contained within them protected. People volunteer for things they believe in and causes they want to see sustained. That is the movement around science and the environment and why the citizen scientist movement is growing.

Scientists should be working with their governmental departments, or university outreach extension centers, to coordinate community science volunteer days. Measuring leaf litter in a forest, or tree ring growth, or monitoring a stream for the presence of certain harmful bacteria or toxic chemicals, or tallying the number of a threatened bird species are a few such projects that could be undertaken by community members. Scientists and their research teams and graduate assistants could customize their research projects with a component where they served as project managers working with the community to accomplish a piece of the data collection puzzle.

The Value – Minuses and Pluses 

Of course, not every project will be appropriate for citizen scientists and a fair amount of training may have to be done, given the nature of the project. And the report touches on the fact that although the quality of the data collected by citizen scientists could be excellent, it may not be fully recognized by all researchers or policymakers. This seems to be an area that would require some policy work in setting up standards to ensure the legitimacy and recognition of such projects undertaken with contributions from citizen scientists. That minus shouldn’t be so hard to turn into a plus. Volunteer-collected data possesses a bevy of potential benefits. The use of smartphones continues to increase among consumers and with that comes development technologies in the form of apps that could play an easier role in data collection. A scientist could quite easily dispatch his volunteer army with marching orders to perform observations of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) over a 5-acre area of the park and have his/her data collection completed within a month’s time. And of course, the benefit that every bureaucrat or department chair loves to hear: it’s a cost-effective way to collect environmental data and could help meet the demands of increasing governmental reporting and compliance requirements.

Getting Started

I think it’s up to each and every one of us to identify the actions we can take that will help continue to make our environment habitable. And becoming involved in a citizen scientist program seems like an ideal way to start to make a difference in your community. Whether you are a scientist or a volunteer, the guide, produced alongside the report by the UK Environmental Observation Framework, is a great place to begin identifying and mapping out strategies for a collaborative citizen science project.

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