University of Connecticut ichthyologist Eric Schultz with some very willing junior scientists.© CAROL DAVIDGE/CT STATE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY at UCONN
Some "citizen science" programs have existed for years, like the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, in which an average of 60,000 volunteer birders spend a day counting birds in specific areas. Audubon also collaborates with Cornell University, Bird Studies Canada and the Canadian Nature Federation in Project FeederWatch, a program that has enlisted backyard birders in monitoring bird populations since the 1970s.
From November to April, Project FeederWatch volunteers place bird feeders in yards, community centers, and other areas around North America. Periodically, volunteers then monitor the highest number of birds of various species seen at certain periods and report to scientists at Cornell, who use the data for research and publications.
Project FeederWatch welcomes participation by "people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers and bird clubs." For a $15 annual fee, participants receive a research kit with identification information, reporting forms, and a newsletter.
For those willing to expend a little more energy, another widespread program is the BioBlitz, which is "a 24-hour plunge into life—an unbridled hunt for all of nature’s varied forms," according to David Wagner, a University of Connecticut ecology professor and co-director of the school’s Center for Conservation and Biodiversity.
Operated at sites around the country by nature centers, universities and educational organizations, BioBlitzes bring together scientists and citizens for 24 hours to search for as many different species as possible in a small area. The programs are designed to generate data, excite people about science, and celebrate the natural world.
The annual Connecticut BioBlitz taps top scientists and naturalists to spend a day trapping and surveying. Amateur naturalists and interested citizens are invited along to help count organisms, identify species, record the data and learn about the world at their doorsteps. This year’s event, sponsored by the Center for Conservation and Biodiversity and the Connecticut Natural History Museum, was held in early June at the Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, Connecticut. "We’re all sleep deprived, tired, hot and we still have gaping wounds," joked Wagner nearly a week after the scientific marathon, but the BioBlitz produced impressive results. His team of about 250 scientists, volunteers and students turned up an astonishing 1,791 species within a two-mile radius of the school, and the group is still tallying species today. In addition, scientists collected numerous specimens and completed DNA barcodes of approximately 400 individuals of 200 different species, which will help increase our understanding of genetic variation.
The highlight for Wagner, though, was the interaction between the public and the scientists. Some 800 to 1,000 people turned out for the festivities, and 30 middle- and high-school students were selected in a statewide competition to work side-by-side with professional scientists, learning the tools of the trade and being a part of scientific research. "Surely a biologist or three was made," Wagner suggested, pointing to perhaps the most important accomplishment of all.
Even more involved are long-term projects like the River Watch Program of the River Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing grassroots involvement in river monitoring and restoration. More than 550,000 people across America are involved in studying and improving watersheds near their homes.
One of the largest River Watch programs focuses on the Yukon Watershed in Alaska, which is the size of the northeastern U.S., and the smallest programs focus on backyard streams. Participating groups include schools, nonprofits, government agencies and Native American tribes. A common thread among all the programs, however, is the intention to make sure watersheds stay clean and healthy.
"It’s much easier to protect a river in advance than to restore it once you’ve lost it," says Geoff Dates, program director for the River Network. The Network and similar providers like the National Cooperative Extension Service and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Watersheds, Oceans and Wetlands Division offer training, information and support. Citizens do the rest—including wading around in streams, collecting samples and phoning congressional representatives to share the findings.
Laws are already in place to regulate watersheds, notes Dates, but "the Clean Water Act doesn’t work without good information." Unfortunately, good information is hard to come by in the world of water resources. "We only know the condition, at most, of 20 percent of waters nationwide," says Dates. Participating groups attempt to remedy this problem by setting up a study that will help them collect data necessary for each unique site.
The National Park Service also runs long-term citizen science programs in many areas, tapping into the goodwill and expertise of many outdoor enthusiasts. Citizens spent more than 6,500 hours volunteering on scientific research projects in 2004 alone at the Rocky Mountain National Park, often in return for lodging.
The Continental Divide Research Learning Center organizes most of the volunteers, who range from professional geoscientists to retirees, from amateur naturalists to an enthusiastic Girl Scout troop. The contributions of these researchers are valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, saving agencies and organizations much-needed funds. Those with experience further contribute by training the uninitiated and broadening the circle of citizen scientists.
Groups using research volunteers do need to be judicious in using the data, since novice researchers are likely to make some mistakes. What citizen scientists may lack in expertise and technical know-how, though, they make up for in enthusiasm. Many are children, or at least children at heart; they are eager to get outside and stomp through the mud, catch frogs, chase bugs and experience the life buzzing and hopping all around us.