What is citizen science?
Citizen science refers to the voluntary participation of the public in a scientific project. Citizen scientists contribute to various steps of the scientific process, including collecting, categorizing, transcribing, or analyzing scientific data. For example, eBird, jointly coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, is a real-time, online checklist program. It provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Birders record observations that are shared with a global community of educators, land managers, ornithologists, and conservation biologists. Another well-known project, Galaxy Zoo, asks participants to classify images of galaxies online. Over 100 million galaxy classifications have been made, and over 20 scientific papers have been published based on data from this project.
The term citizen science is often used to describe a wide array of public participation in the scientific process, including initiatives that are more useful for public education rather than scientific contribution. Here, however, we adopt the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) definition of citizen science as participation in projects that produce reliable data and information usable by scientists, decision-makers, and/or the public, and that are open to the same system of peer review that applies to conventional science. Citizen science project developers must employ sound research or monitoring design, and peer reviewers should look for evidence of such practices.
The advent of the Internet and other technologies has made it possible for non-scientists to participate in scientific endeavors en masse. Although volunteer participation in the scientific process has its limitations, citizen science can continue to offer great opportunities in furthering environmental research and action.
Opportunities to contribute to the environmental field
As ESA’s report states, the best science does not necessarily come from peer-reviewed scientific publications with robust designs and inferences; instead, the best science uses the right information to answer a specific question. Given that traditional government- and university-led science has been unable to keep pace with the need to understand and document environmental issues, citizen science holds promise as a useful tool to fill this need. With the appropriate training and support, citizen science can help scientists address knowledge and funding gaps.
Large Geographic and Time Scales
Often, citizen scientists can participate in the scientific process at large geographical and spatial scales, and sometimes at greater resolutions than traditional science. Because the pool of volunteers greatly exceeds the number of professionals, citizen scientists have the ability to collect more fine-grained information over large areas and long periods time, as well as process larger amounts of data. For example, as mentioned above, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales using volunteer-recorded observations.
Localized observations and monitoring
Citizen science can help speed up and improve local, on-the-ground phenomena. Localized observation may also shorten the time from data collection to decision-making. Having more sets of eyes, especially from individuals who are familiar with a specific geographic area, can improve detection of environmental changes and identify issues that may require management responses. Citizen scientists can also monitor the effectiveness management practices that have been implemented. In addition, citizen science can leverage under-appreciated knowledge sources such as local and traditional knowledge.
For example, after the BP oil spill, the public contributed to an online Oil Spill Map. Thousands of people reported smoke, tainted seafood, foul odors, and other problems in the days and months following the spill. This information offered important detailed information that officials could use to respond to human health and environmental needs during the ongoing disaster.
Refine research questions
Because citizen scientists are affected by and observe local natural resources and the environment every day, they can help inform location-specific research questions and make them more useful to local communities and policymakers. Citizen scientist-led research can also help address local management issues. For example, under the guidance of scientists from two universities, high school students designed and carried out a study to establish whether residents would be willing to pay the amount required to restore the Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. The results were published in the peer-reviewed journal, Ecological Economics.
After analyzing 338 citizen science biodiversity projects around the world, researchers at the University of Washington estimated that in-kind contributions of 1.3-2.3 citizen science volunteers to biodiversity research have an economic value of up to $2.5 billion per year. Citizen scientists have the potential to become an even larger resource base for the science community to draw on. However, the contributions of citizen science is NOT a substitute for or rationale to cut science spending,
Benefits for participants
Citizen science offers benefits beyond direct contributions to environmental research. According to the ESA report, participation in a project can increase firsthand understanding of conservation and environmental issues. Involvement in a citizen science initiative may foster environmental stewardship, spread knowledge, improve science literacy, and build expertise.
Limitations of citizen science
Although citizen science offers opportunities to improve certain types of environmental research, public participation in science has its limits. Many scientific projects would not be appropriate for citizen science involvement. For citizen science to be suitable, volunteers must be able to meaningfully contribute to the science. Volunteers should not be expected to contribute to projects that require specialized knowledge, extensive training, equipment, or large time commitments. Additionally, even if a project could benefit from citizen science, not all subject matters stimulate widespread public interest.
Importantly, as with any research endeavor, data quality must be accounted for. Projects that involve citizen science must maintain scientific rigor and data quality. Similar quality controls can be used for both citizen science and conventional science – traditional science already has the tools to handle quality controls in citizen science. New statistical and high-performance computing tools can address data quality issues such as sampling bias, detection, measurement error, identification, and spatial clustering. Standardized field protocols and/or mathematical models can help ensure data quality.
Investing in citizen science
ESA’s report identifies the following as citizen science investment needs.
- Developing standard protocols to maximize the value and durability of the data collected.
- Investing in the development of sensor technology, which will improve the quality and lower the cost of the data produced.
- Developing techniques to share and analyze large quantities of data collected by different projects across large areas. Adopting, adapting, or collaborating with existing projects would reduce project redundancy.
- Investing in social and organizational structures that improve the communication of data and facilitating awareness of best practices.
Citizen science has been increasingly recognized for its potential. In September 2015, John P. Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, released a memorandum that directs federal agencies to advance citizen science and crowdsourcing, including designating agency-specific coordinators for citizen science projects. To start exploring existing citizen science projects and to participate, visit Scientific American’s Citizen Science page, Citizen Science Alliance, and National Geographic Education.