Striving to Be Everywhere, All the Time: How Citizen Science Can Help Environmental Research

Featured Image Caption: Citizen scientists most times take short courses with the senior scientists and other specialists so they know how exactly data is being collected for any particular study (Image Source: “Citizen Science Volunteers” by National Rainier National Park, licensed under CC BY 2.0).

Reference: Fraisl, D., Hager, G., Bedessem, B., Gold, M., Hsing, P., Danielsen, F., Hitchcock, C., Hulbert, J., Piera, J., Spiers, H., Thiel, M., & Haklay, M. (2022). Citizen science in environmental and ecological sciences. Nature Review Methods Primers, 2, 64.

Citizen science is a relatively novel practice where non-scientist volunteers help conduct scientific research. This help can take form through experimental design, data collection, result analysis, or problem solving, and usually involves these citizens taking short courses so that they can learn how to properly assist the scientists in these projects.

By relatively novel, we mean that citizen science has been used for centuries, but only over the past few decades has it been considered to have the same prestige as a project only undertaken by scientists.

Now, scientists build some experiments with citizen science in mind, if that is something that’s compatible with the need or problem they’ve identified. After their experimental design is defined, they look to build a community where citizens can feel safe and open to help scientific research progress.

Image Caption: Community-building for citizen science can be one of the hardest parts, that’s why citizen science databases have been created to make these projects accessible for the citizens interested in helping within their communities (Image Source: “2015 Citizen Science” by National Rainier National Park, licensed under CC BY 2.0).
It’s Not All Good, But It’s Not All Bad

When citizen science was first becoming widely used in the contemporary scientific community, many were skeptical about the accuracy and validity of data collected or analyzed by volunteers of the general public. This is why Dr. Dilek Fraisl and her colleagues analyzed what were the most widely accepted practices and what were the prevalent reservations when deciding if to include citizen science in scientific research or not.

Image Caption: Citizen scientists can get involved in projects that match their own hobbies and interests. If you’re a bird watcher (or strive to be one), you can volunteer to report the birds you watch or hear in a particular study area. If you’re a hiker, you can learn to identify insects or animal tracks. If you’re a SCUBA diver, you can monitor reef health while you’re diving with friends. (Image Source: “Bird Watching” by Aniket Suryavanshi, licensed under CC BY 2.0).

Most concerns that members of the scientific community have expressed branch out from the skills and habits of the non-scientist participants—but these are being continuously addressed. Some of the concerns include the inconsistent application of protocol and technical tools, the incorrect identification or translation when collecting data, observational and systematic sampling bias, and unrepresentative sampling efforts, which could all affect the reliability of the study. Nonetheless, through the training of participants before and during the project, expert control and filtering of data, community-based validation, structured protocols with prescribed sampling in space and time, and the evaluation of participants’ skills, scientists have been minimizing the cons of citizen science. Through their research, Dr. Dilek Fraisl and her colleagues determined that these efforts outweigh the drawbacks that could arise from using citizen science.

What Are Some Ways I Can Get Involved?

There are numerous organizations, research institutes, universities, and national parks that have on-going citizen science programs. An easy way to find these if you’re in the United States is through, a government database of more than 400 citizen science projects taking place currently in the States. Then, if you’re in Europe, you can look into the European Citizen Science Association’s database, which has projects ranging in topic from bee conservation to better policymaking. Or look for other projects through one of the European Citizen Science Association’s projects, called the INCENTIVE platform, which showcases universities looking for citizen scientists.

In my case, living in the Dominican Republic, I found citizen science projects when I was a teenager through Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) that interested me. The Eco Divers certification, given through Reef Check, allows recreational divers to participate in coral reef health monitoring if and when they’re available. Citizen science is a fun way to be involved in your community, even if you haven’t pursued a career directly related to science—and it is truly the only way scientists can be everywhere, all the time.

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Andrea Valcarcel

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Biology from Thompson Rivers University (BC, Canada), I am currently working as the head of an Oceanic Lab in the Dominican Republic while also being an MSc candidate in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. My research so far has been mostly focused on corals and marine mammals and the effects climate change may have in their overall behavior and survival. When not monitoring marine ecosystems, you can find me volunteering with my therapy dog and reading romance and fantasy novels. Twitter: @andreavalcar

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