Citizen Science Sends Research in New Directions

Citizen scientists in the fieldCitizen science is a relatively new phenomenon in academia, a departure from long-held beliefs that only trained researchers can gather credible data. It’s changed things up. University researchers are quickly discovering that citizen volunteers make the impossible possible and tend not to break the budget.

And citizen volunteers get a chance to participate in meaningful science, bringing their own unique skillsets to questions of vital importance.

In a seminar at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) called “Choosing and Using Citizen Science”, researchers from UNH (UNH) and UMaine as well as partners from various state and federal agencies and organizations gathered to examine the practice, viability and mutual benefits of citizen science.

Though amateur scientists like Henry David Thoreau have gathered data and recorded observations for centuries, the formal practice of citizen science traces its roots to the mid-1990s when the Internet came of age. Interconnected networks made large databases easy to both access and update.

“The phrase citizen science and related terms are relatively new. (It’s) really gained momentum in the last decade or so,” said Bridie McGreavy, Postdoctoral Researcher at the New England Sustainability Consortium (NEST) and UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.

Citizen science is enabling universities to participate in large-scale projects over time: inventories of seasonal changes, water quality studies, animal monitoring. One early citizen science project in New Hampshire has utilized volunteers to study lakes for over three decades. The result is a mountain of data for scientists to work with, the kind of information gathering that would have never happened without engaged volunteers.

“It’s a great method for answering otherwise impossible questions, usually ones that have a really big geological scale or a really long time scale. You’re not going to hire a grad student for 35 years, but (with citizen science) you’re going to have a really interesting data set over 35 years,” said Alyson Eberhardt, Coordinator, Coastal Research Volunteers at New Hampshire Sea Grant and UNH Cooperative Extension.

What’s more, citizen science is gaining viability in the exacting world of peer-reviewed science journals. Checks and balances on data collection have shown much of the information gathered by volunteers to be solid: “It’s been established that data collected working with citizens can be very reliable, can be publishable. It is credible,” said Malin Clyde, Project Manager, Stewardship Network: New England, UNH Cooperative Extension.

Among the most important points made at the seminar:

  • Citizen science is best when data cannot be collected any other way or when it will be useful but not critical.
  • Among the tenets: protocols should be simple, long term follow up is required and recruitment is an ongoing process. Also, citizen science won’t work for every question.
  • Scientific objectives that benefit research must be balanced with educational objectives for citizen scientists in order for projects to be successful.
  • Volunteers need to know that they’re valued. They should be allowed contact with scientists and professionals and their contributions should be acknowledged.
  • Those designing citizen science programs should find ways to utilize citizens’ diverse areas of expertise.

Researchers and coordinators say that citizen science has, more than anything, invited people to become invested in the eco-health of their communities, to become stewards of the land and water that surrounds them.

The Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock, New Hampshire has been teaching volunteers to help amphibians, which cross dangerous roads by the thousands each spring on their way to breed in vernal pools. Volunteers count the amphibians and usher them across roads to safety. Since 2007, hundreds of volunteers have shepherded 20,000 salamanders, frogs and toads across local roads.

Said: Brett Amy Thelen, Science Director at the Harris Center. “What we do is focus on work that is local and place-based and has a real potential for land management on a local scale. We are able to provide conservation data to local entities. This is what on-the-ground local stuff can do.”

The “Choosing and Using Citizen Science” seminar was part of the Issues and Ice Cream series hosted by UNH Cooperative Extension. Other partners for the seminar included NH Sea Grant, NH EPSCoR, UMaine, Maine EPSCoR, and the New England Sustainability Consortium.