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Citizen science for the ages

Speed read
  • Citizen science has an old, respected pedigree.
  • Crowdsourced data increases reach of contemporary scientific efforts.
  • New statistical methodology enhances citizen science acceptance.

Recently, the Viewpoints radio show hosted a chat discussing the importance of so-called ‘average’ citizens acting on behalf of large research projects. You can listen to the conversation here.

Today, we offer an edited transcript of this insightful talk.

Your two citizen science advocates


What are the origins of citizen science?

Hannibal: It’s much older than most people realize. It’s not something only grad students do. Aristotle was a citizen scientist; Charles Darwin was a citizen scientist. Both lacked advanced degrees, and yet they made voluminous, astute observations of nature.

Darwin was one of those Victorian ‘amateurs’ (from the Latin: ‘to love’) who accumulated vast stores of observations scientists still use to make interesting observations about how life works and how it changes with climate change and other global impacts.

<Strong>Amateur. </strong> Citizen science may feel like the hot new trend, but citizen science is as old as science itself. By taking part in the scientific process, you increase our ability to understand how our world works and changes. Courtesy Andrew Comings <a href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>.

Can you describe your favorite citizen science projects?

LeBaron: The Audubon Society has one of the longest running citizen science projects. Back in 1900, we started the Christmas Bird Count as an alternative activity to something called the Side Hunt, where people would go out and choose sides and hunt everything.

The Side Hunt was falling out of favor in the late 1800s and at the time there was also a growing conservation awareness, and Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, proposed to do a Christmas Bird Census.

And it’s literally been done every year since then. It’s been very popular, and this upcoming season will be the 117th year.

Christmas Bird Counts are done within a proscribed 15-mile diameter circle, divided up into subsectors. Each group is responsible for an area of coverage, and they keep track of the hours and miles that they’re putting in during the course of the day. As they move through those areas, they count all the birds they see or hear on that day.

At the end of the day, they all get together for a compilation gathering which oftentimes includes a potluck dinner, and they come up with the master list of the full results for the whole circle.

Hannibal: There’s a really scrappy little citizen science outfit called the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) in the Bay Area. In Marin County there is a Coho salmon run that is mostly on protected land, but a portion of it goes right through the heart of some of Marin County’s towns.

SPAWN has been able to show those towns that they need to pull their development plans back. It’s only like 13 feet from the creek sides, but just doing that allows the Coho salmon to fulfill their migrational and reproductive destinies.

<strong>Science is for the birds. </strong> The Audubon Society will hold its 117th consecutive Christmas Bird Count, a great chance for citizen scientists to get outdoors, protect nature, and socialize with kindred spirits. Courtesy LHG Creative Photography <A href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode'>(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).</a>

What use is citizen science?

Hannibal: It’s a different kind of science than what we usually call ‘science’ – the type where you have a question, you come up with an experiment, you do your experiment, you see what your result is and what did it say about your original question, and then see if that experiment and those results can be replicated, and then you write a scientific paper about it and it gets published, etc. It’s valuable, but different.

Remember, it’s not a new kind of science. Today, it’s about big data and it has boomed because of smartphone technology, the massive computing power we didn’t have before, and more sophisticated statistical analysis than we had before.

LeBaron: The really gratifying thing over the last 15 to 20 years has been the great acceptance of citizen science datasets by researchers. And one of the reasons they have made that leap to accepting citizen science data is because of the statistical methods that we’ve developed. It has enabled researchers to actually study citizen science datasets from all sorts of different fields.

Hannibal: All wild species numbers have been vastly reduced. For instance, there’s one billion fewer birds on the planet than there were just 40 years ago. Some of these species don’t get on the endangered species list because of the way that list is evaluated.

The good news is that this is where you and I can get to work where we live to help document what species are living with us, near us, which ones are passing through as they migrate, and take local action to help them keep on keeping on.

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