Reference: Metcalfe, A. N., Kennedy, T. A., Mendez, G. A., & Muehlbauer, J. D. (2022). Applied citizen science in freshwater research. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, e1578. https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1578
Freshwater resources are under threat
As a long-time resident of Michigan, I’ve grown very fond of the five Great Lakes surrounding my state, which represent one of the world’s largest surface freshwater ecosystems. However, the health of the Great Lakes and other freshwater resources is increasingly under threat due to human activities that contribute to pollution, the spread of invasive species, and other environmental problems. Not only is this an issue for all the aquatic life in freshwater ecosystems, it also poses challenges for humans because we depend on those ecosystems for drinking water, recreation, food, and other important benefits. Although humans are a major cause of environmental problems in freshwater ecosystems, they can also be part of the solution, especially when we all work together through what is known as citizen science.
Citizen science can help save our waters
Scientists are trained to plan and conduct research to help solve problems, but their research can be much more powerful when they work in partnership with the general public. When scientists partner with the public to perform research, they are engaging in what is called citizen science. With the help of the public, scientists can collect far more data than they would otherwise be able to on their own. For example, citizen scientists can help collect data across larger spatial areas, as well as more frequently and for longer periods of time than in traditional scientific studies. There are many studies already underway that use citizen science to better understand freshwater ecosystems, with members of the public monitoring things like water quality, endangered and invasive species, or nutrient levels in their local lakes, rivers, and streams. In a new research article, Metcalfe and colleagues highlight important benefits of using citizen science in freshwater research, as well as some of the challenges such approaches present.
The opportunities are endless
With relatively simple tools, citizen scientists can measure a wide array of variables in freshwater ecosystems. For instance, the organization EarthEcho provides citizen scientists with testing kits to measure multiple indicators of water quality. More than 50,000 participants used those testing kits to collect and report water quality data from 33 countries between 2007 and 2018, resulting in a large database of publicly available information on water quality over time and across many locations (www.monitorwater.org). By engaging in citizen science, members of the public gain valuable information about the status of freshwater resources in their community. This can help motivate communities to clean up their local water bodies, as well as raise red flags when water conditions may threaten public health. On top of all that, citizen science projects have contributed to important scientific discoveries that have informed environmental conservation initiatives and policies. Despite all these benefits, there are still several challenges that can stand in the way of successfully conducting citizen science research.
Challenges to consider
As citizen science continues to gain popularity, it is important to carefully consider potential challenges associated with this approach and how to address them. One such challenge is the ethical treatment of citizen scientists. Citizen scientists should never risk their own safety or wellbeing for the sake of the research study, but little information is available on how frequently or to what extent this has occurred to date. Care must also be taken to ensure participants’ contributions are adequately acknowledged given their critical role in the scientific process. When designing a citizen science study, it is also crucial to consider how best to collect high quality data. With many individuals participating in data collection, there must be a clear and straightforward protocol to follow to ensure that the data are consistent and comparable. This may involve using quality control measures or developing a training program to help familiarize citizen scientists with data collection procedures. The last major challenge is recruiting members of the public to participate as citizen scientists. This requires clearly communicating the research project and goals, building trust with the public, addressing any barriers to participation (e.g., access to internet, transportation), and emphasizing why people should care and contribute.
You can be a citizen scientist, too!
If this article has inspired you to get involved in citizen science, they are many opportunities to explore! The citizen science platform Zooniverse.org allows citizen scientists to aid in wildlife surveys by identifying species captured in photos taken by wildlife cameras. Local watershed groups often lead citizen science events, such as the “River Roundup” event led by the Huron River Watershed Council in Michigan, where residents help identify aquatic invertebrates, like mayflies and other insects, as indicators of river health. You can also visit SciStarter.org for more ideas on how to ignite your inner scientist.