Can citizen scientists stretch America's scientific dollar?
February 1, 2020
I almost trained as a scientist, but feared I wouldn’t be able to locate the sweet spot in how to spend my workday. I love the outdoors too much to spend days in a windowless lab, and I’m too wimpy to spend weeks on end camping in a rainy jungle, broiling desert, or roiling sea. I’m in luck nonetheless, because the era of citizen science is here. This is fortunate for those of us who have scientist-envy, and possibly for America’s pocketbook.
Citizen science is scientific work undertaken by non-scientists, often in collaboration with scientific institutions. For many projects, we can be helpful even if our only skill is counting. Our green presence alleviates some of the common bottlenecks of good scientific research. That is, our numbers can increase a project’s geographic scope, lengthen its time frame, and broaden the number of species or taxa under study. More eyes and more counters mean a larger data set and more accurate statistics.
This is particularly true for bird counts. The Audubon Society runs the Great Backyard
Bird Count each February. The count is a four-day event where participants spend as little as 15 minutes or multiple days counting birds and reporting sightings online at birdcount.org
You can team up with more experienced birders to get started or bring along an aspiring birder if you’re an old hand. Your “back yard” may be an apartment building or your vista from a cruise ship somewhere around the world.
The Christmas Bird Count, on the other hand, runs in specific locations around the U.S. and internationally. Each counting location determines a specific 24-hour period between
December 15 and January 5. This year (2020) marked the 120th Christmas Bird Count, with special celebrations through the country.
Other counts monitor marine species and wild animals around the world. Gray whale counts off the Pacific coast combine scientific research as well as an education. Observer shifts from mid-February through May keep watch for gray whales swimming to birthing ground in Baja. National Geographic suggests other projects you can participate in, including water monitoring, searching space, measuring night-sky brightness, and wildlife observation.
Plants make great citizen science subjects because unlike animals, stars, and even water, plants usually stay put while you observe them. Phenology – the study of the timing of leaf production, flowering, and reproduction – lends itself well to citizen science. You can tabulate changes from season to season and year to year. It is particularly rewarding if you have kids or grandkids with whom to share your enthusiasm. Further, you can enhance scientific knowledge by adding your data to a state database or the National Phenology Network.
Check with your local botanic garden, natural history museum, college or university, or library for phenology and other citizen science projects where you live. Many educational institutions encourage interested people of any ages or activity level. Projects can range from one-time on-campus projects, to periodic data collection requiring specialized training to leading projects in the field. Their goals are typically education as well as actively protecting the earth’s flora and the diverse life that depends on it.
Beyond your local options, Earthwatch projects around the world allow members of the public, corporate employees, and educators to participate in long-term environmental projects for a short term. I have gathered, dried, and inspected insect frass (look it up!) in a Costa Rican jungle, collected buds, leaves and flowers near Tsavo National Park in east Kenya, recorded pink river dolphins in the Peruvian Amazon, and laid out research transects in a Cuban forest. Each project afforded me opportunities to meet new friends with similar interests from other countries and help the host country gather data toward answering important questions.
Whether the presence of citizen scientists actually saves money in a project is an open question. A research study by MountainScholar.org found that the citizen science projects studied are “not notably cheaper than their professional counterparts but are lauded for their benefits of education, community engagement, and stewardship.” In the specific case studies they analyzed, supervised data collection and on-the-job training (more common in citizen science) were found to have higher variable costs, while unsupervised data collection and training prior to data collection was found to have higher fixed costs.”
This would seem to hold true in local and international projects in which I have participated. They may not save money per se, but they increase the depth and breadth of data collected beyond what professional scientists have the funds to do.
Citizen science’s recent popularity does not mean it is new. The “gentleman scientist” appellation predates recent efforts by centuries. These gentlemen – and likely many gentlewomen – were generally wealthy landowners whose curiosity drove them to fund their own scientific investigations.
Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin would certainly be considered citizen scientists.
Of today’s efforts to bring knowledge, passion, and experience to support scientific understanding, Ben and Charles would be proud!