When most people hear the word scientist they have a certain image. They envision a professional with years of college followed by either long stints in the field or long lonely hours spent in a lab. A common misconception about science is that only highly trained professionals engage in research and data analysis. With the right guidance citizen scientists can be an incredible asset to the scientific community. Years ago science was conducted by trained scientists who had studied in a particular field. They would be the ones responsible for data collection, interpretation and field work. Funding for scientists working at universities or for corporations was provided for along with a salary and benefits.
As the workforce changed over the years so did many of the ways we looked at and funded science. For scientists who don’t have the time, access or funding to do research the way they want to, citizen scientists are stepping in to fill this gap. The added bonus is most of the citizen scientists are volunteers so it’s also a way to conduct field work without adding to a budget.
Of course citizen scientist is an evolving practice which covers many disciplinary areas and types of contributions. Some of the work conducted can range from tedious data entry to collecting soil and water samples or photographing the habits of wildlife. Duke University had done a study in 2014 that indicated the participation in citizen science increases overall environmental awareness and can lead to better understanding and increased support for conservation efforts. Participants in citizen science projects were likely to share what they had done and advocate for the cause to their family and friends especially on social media. This has a huge benefit because it draws in the public support and possibly more funding. For the cause driven science, as with endangered species, this can help pass protective laws or change policy that has a negative impact.
A quick google search for iNaturalist, a social network where anyone can submit a photograph of their encounters with flora and fauna that launched in 2008, shows a steady increase of submitted images every year since. This isn’t just for the hobbyist curious about what they encountered in the wild many scientists use it as another tool for studying the natural world. Teachers are finding this a useful way to engage students into understanding the natural world around them without it being in a sterile classroom setting. There are a few examples where this has been effective.
In Florida we have several volunteer citizen science groups who monitor shorebirds keeping track of their nesting and chick rearing. Unlike many professional scientists who teach during the day, their daily observations are an invaluable resource that helps determine a species overall health and population growth. Often times it’s the volunteer who spots an outbreak of a fungus or birth defects in the colony usually missed by those only able to observe the shorebirds a few times a week.
Another example also here in Florida are the volunteers who do the morning survey for sea turtles. These are volunteers who come out early in the morning to record the previous nights activity on the beach. This data collection helps both state and federal agencies determine how well the species is surviving and is often used when deciding whether or not to list them on the Endangered Species List. I spent eleven years in the field working with sea turtles as a citizen scientist and it was life changing.
Many states have aquatic preserves and some might have programs where water quality is measured along with aquatic plant and animal life. Another citizen science program centers on elementary schools and pollinator gardens. These are easy to create and a great way to engage students as they research the native species of pollinators for their area and the host and nectar plants needed to be planted. The kids are thrilled to go out and check the leaves for eggs and caterpillars as they watch one of the most amazing circles of life. Watching a caterpillar make his chrysalis or hatch out into an adult butterfly is worth the effort.
For the past three years I have been lucky enough to live within a few miles of nesting Bald Eagles. As it happened there was also a citizen scientist type program where we would monitor and photograph what we saw. We would keep a photo record of when they started to rebuild their nest, incubate the eggs and happily announce when the eaglets had arrived. The visits were brief so as not to disturb these majestic birds of prey. Though no longer listed as endangered they still struggle since much of their habitat is being developed and their food supply rapidly diminishing along with the explosion of condos and malls. As you can see from the photos below we can document the progress of each breeding season. This includes verifying that eggs have hatched, that chicks are being fed, what food is being provided, the growth progress of the young and when they finally fledge.
Being a citizen scientist is a rewarding experience that is becoming more and more vital to protecting our natural world. If you are interested in becoming one you can do a google search for such programs in your area, contact any nearby schools who might have such a program or be interested in starting one or contact your state natural resource agencies, many of which do have them. If such a program doesn’t exist perhaps you can encourage one to be started. You never know your data and observations just might be the missing link to saving a species or helping to implement good stewardship policy.