Citizen based science. What is it, and why is it becoming more important? Wikipedia defines citizen science as, “scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur (or nonprofessional) scientists.” Citizen science is described as "public participation in scientific research," including both monitoring and research. This is also known as public participation in scientific research, or PPSR.
Here, Ranger Mac will take a deeper look into what we as citizens can do to help with scientific monitoring and research and learn just how important it is to do so.
How Did Citizen Based Science Start?
The phrase 'citizen science' is a fairly new term, but the practice has been around for decades. Prior to the 20th century, it was known as 'gentleman science' and was mainly done by amateur or self-funded male researchers. Some well-known citizen scientists from history are people such as Sir Issac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin.
A study completed in 2016 shows that the largest impact from citizen scientists has been in the research fields of biology, conservation, and ecology. It also showed that it’s utilized mainly as a method of collecting and classifying data, rather than coming up with hypotheses or solutions to problems.
What is Public Participation in Scientific Research?
Also known as PPSR, this is a citizen collaboration that provides new knowledge by providing access to more observations and data than what can be offered by traditional scientific research. PPSR is most often focused on a specific question or issue that requires data to be gathered or processed over an extended period of time and/or a wide geographic area. This is why the collaboration of citizens across the United States (or even the world) all collecting the needed data is so important. Oftentimes, a small group of scientists just doesn't have enough time or manpower to get data collected properly.
Some of the projects do require some sort of certification and/or training to help ensure consistency in the data collected, as well as its analysis. The current range of projects cover a large spectrum of scientific content from native bees to arctic glaciers. The projects may engage a handful of participants in a small rural town or thousands of observers across several continents. No matter how many people are involved in the project, each person and the data they collect is important to the cause.
Citizen Science Projects
Now that you have a basic understanding of what citizen science is, let’s look at a few example projects to see how they work. If any of them strike your fancy, feel free to get involved and become a citizen scientist in your own area!
Amateur Astronomy - This has been a field where amateurs have contributed throughout history. As a whole, amateur astronomers observe a large variety of celestial objects, sometimes with equipment they build themselves. Common areas of observation for these amateurs include things like the moon, stars, comets, planets, and a variety of deep sky objects such as galaxies and star clusters. Some people also take photos of the night sky. Some like to specialize in observing types of objects or types of events that interest them. This type of citizen science is important, because it’s impossible for scientists to keep a close eye on all parts of space at all times.
Butterfly Counts - This is an area where observers study the range of butterflies and their relative abundance. There are various protocols for monitoring butterflies and different organizations that support one or more counts and/or opportunistic sightings. One group that uses citizen scientists to collect data is Monarch Watch. This is a continent-wide project that tracks the migration path of the monarch butterfly. Another group is the North American Butterfly Association that has a butterfly count program that’s been going on since 1976.
Art History - While the history of citizen science has long been focused on the natural sciences, there are now some projects from other fields such as art history. The Zooniverse project is an example of this. It's a transcription tool that was developed to let volunteers read and transcribe personal papers of artists. ARTigo is also a citizen project that collects semantic data on artworks by creating games that people can play that feature artwork images. From the data collected through gaming, it builds a search engine for the artworks.
There are so many more citizen science projects out there that you can get involved in, from bird-watching to studying coral reefs. (Check out Ranger Mac’s blog on the annual Christmas Bird Count, if you’re into bird watching). If there’s an area that you’re interested in, there’s probably a group you can join to help start collecting data. If not, you could even start your own group!
If you do want to get involved, reach out to a local park and recreation office in your area as well as state parks. There are sure to be groups to join and meet-ups happening nearby that you can attend.
Your help in collecting data is important to science, now more than ever as it becomes more and more clear that our planet needs every conservation effort available. Every little bit of data helps make the bigger picture clearer through scientific discovery. So get out there and observe the natural world around you and collect that data!