The Big Deal With Citizen Science

Learn More About Birds—Become a Citizen Scientist! Image credit:Cornell University, Lab of Ornithology

By: George Grattan (NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Earthwatch.)

In the "Wild Side" column this week in the New York Times, biologist and author Aaron Hirsch outlined the growing trend of what's been called "Big Science": the centralization of research on the most obviously exciting scientific questions of our time into the hands of fewer—and ever more massive—scientific organizations.Hirsch, like many others, recognizes the broad efficiencies of such a model, particularly in fields such as astrophysics and genetics where large-scale and expensive equipment is often required, but is wisely hesitant about the potential pitfalls of centralization, as well. In the era of Big Science, Hirsch says, smaller-scale scientific endeavors may get squeezed out, outlier theorists may never get the funding to test their ideas, and the spirit of general scientific inquiry will become even less dispersed throughout the culture at large than it currently is.

Hirsch endorses the concept of "Citizen Science," modes of inquiry that are specifically designed to draw upon the energy and commitment of the low-tech, low-training, zero-overhead enthusiasts for things such as annual Christmas Bird Counts, community water quality monitoring, and reporting snowfall amounts to the local weather station. (Hi, Mom!)

Hirsch's column ignited a bit of a debate, at least by the standards of current public discussion over where science should go—generating more than 130 comments at my last count. As one of the pioneers of the modern Citizen Science model, my employer, Earthwatch, obviously has a stake in such a discussion, as do the scientists whose projects we've been funding around the world for nearly 40 years. Without a strong commitment to the idea that everyday people can help conduct quality science in the field—and that by doing so they get both the inspiration and the tools necessary to take action on behalf of the environment in their own communities—we'd have packed up our pipettes and gone home long ago.

We've got more than just a commitment, though; we've got our data on how Citizen Science works to advance the state of scientific inquiry—quite simply, by allowing researchers to do more of it.

Two of our lead scientists, Drs. Christina Buesching and Chris Newman, published a study in Biological Conservation a few years ago documenting the benefits of using volunteer citizen scientists in their work studying mammal populations in England, methods they're now deploying in Canada on our Mammals of Nova Scotia project .

As Drs. Buesching and Newman put it, "While it is essential to calibrate the accuracy of volunteers this does not diminish their value. They allow numerous sites to be surveyed simultaneously and they can save time....Many volunteers can be trained simultaneously, representing a time-and cost-effective method for ultimately increasing the number of competent ecological monitors in society." Drs. Buesching and Newman found that minimally trained volunteers were, on average, about 60% as efficient as professional scientists in helping them conduct many aspects of their study.

At first glance, 60% may not look like a passing grade for Citizen Science, even though I would have killed for it at one point in my high school chemistry class.

But the Citizen Science model doesn't assume professional accuracy in each volunteer and doesn't depend upon it to work. Rather, like the joke from an old SNL skit about how the "Bank of Change" makes money, it assumes its profits lie in volume. With so much work to be done—most people have no idea of the infinite amount of daily "grunt work" required by even the most basic field science projects—60% accuracy multiplied by hundreds or thousands of helping hands moves the scientific ball significantly down the field toward quality data, even factoring in the need for training, monitoring, and sorting out the inevitable errors.

Where Big Science works by putting a few very highly trained people with a lot of money at their disposal in charge of rare and expensive machines, Citizen Science works by sending nearly anyone you can grab into the field with a simple task, simple equipment to do it, and a willingness on the scientists' part to sort through the results. It's messy, at times, but it works.

(And Big Science has its messiness problems, too: the Large Hadron Collider broke within hours of first being switched on this September, proving that world ends not with the sucking bang of an artificially-created black whole, but with the sucky whimper of a badly soldered part. Whoops. If a volunteer mistakes the occasional beaver for an otter, it doesn't add up to a million dollars of downtime a minute.)

More importantly, Citizen Science literally starts with citizens—and it's that ethos of involvement, of all of us being in this giant science project called "Life on Earth" together, that's ultimately at the center of this mode of investigation.

On Earthwatch's Trinidad's Leatherback Sea Turtles project, Dr. Scott Eckert, Director of Science at the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) at Duke University, has joined with the President of a Trinidadian conservation group, Nature Seekers, in an extraordinary demonstration of many hands making light work.

In this case, it's more like many feet, since the work of citizen scientists on this project involves walking along up to 2 miles of soft sandy beaches for up to seven hours each night monitoring leatherback nests. Nature Seekers needs help protecting the nearly six miles of nesting beaches under their care along the coast of the village of Matura, some of the most important nesting sites in the world for a species that's facing the possibility of extinction in as little as 15-20 years.

Citizen science here means counting turtles and eggs, measuring nesting turtles, tagging turtles with transponders for ongoing data collection, relocating endangered eggs, and demonstrating the ongoing value of the leatherbacks' presence to a local community that's increasingly interested in finding ways to make sustainable tourism—including citizen science by visiting volunteers—part of their culture and economy.

In other words, it's the antithesis of giving an alphabet soup of advanced degrees in white coats a multi-trillion dollar budget to gather in a secure room around the shiny new Framistat Mark 3XAlpha to conduct a 15 minute experiment that was 10 years in the planning, and which'll produce results that'll be read and understood by 10 people outside of that room. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, as the saying goes.)

It's saving turtles, at night, on a tropical beach, and helping the scientists in charge get the information they need to find better ways to save them next year. It's working with dozens of local community members every night to demonstrate how large numbers of people who don't necessarily know much about turtles know enough to feel they want to keep them around long enough for all of us to learn more, and are willing to do something about it.

As Hirsch notes, we've got an incoming US President whose campaign strategies seem to resonate with the ethos of citizen science: seemingly small, decentralized, even arguably unsophisticated efforts by lots of "outsiders" can add up to significant resources, discoveries, and change. Obviously, there's great value in Big Science, but in a world that desperately needs to get more people involved at every level of scientific inquiry and the environmental action it informs, I for one believe it's going to be "the little people" who will to matter most.

Archive posts on bird watching.
Bird-Watching Book Traces History of the Hobby
Rainham Marshes: Designer Birdwatching
The Case of the Vanishing Birds