Democratizing Science: How Regular People Can Contribute To Scientific Research

By Nexus Media, with Mary Ellen Hannibal

From tracking migrating birds to monitoring changes in weather and climate, there are only so many data points a scientist can collect. To boost their reach, many researchers are reaching out to all of us, private citizens, to be citizen scientists, to accurately record observations and dramatically expand the impact of scientific studies. In Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, author Mary Ellen Hannibal blends reporting, research and memoir into an intimate look at this rapidly expanding field of exploration, how it reveals and protects the planet and its inhabitants, and how we can all get involved. You can read an excerpt of the book here. Below Hannibal shares her insights into citizen science for our latest Q+A for Nexus Media News.

Is citizen science new?

Yes and no. Charles Darwin was a citizen scientist — he worked on his own and he didn’t have an advanced degree. Thomas Jefferson was an amazing citizen scientist, and so were Lewis and Clark. Many of our natural history museums were founded by amateurs. Science really didn’t get professionalized until the 20th century.

How can citizen science help with climate change impacts?

As temperature and precipitation patterns change, many species are on the move. Species need room to roam anyway — even plants do — to maintain genetic viability. Large carnivores, especially, need to travel to stake new territories. We need to track how species are moving and where, so we can protect the areas that species are using to get from here to there.

We are losing species at a rate and magnitude approaching that which took out the dinosaurs. How can citizen scientists help stem this mass extinction?

As you say, species are disappearing from the Earth, seemingly right out from under our noses. Upwards of 23,000 species are currently threatened with extinction, and the permanent loss of life at the species level is bad enough. But biodiversity loss at the population level is arguably much worse. Populations are just what that sounds like, groups of the same species that are distributed across various geographical spaces. The health of the species as a single collective entity depends on the health of its populations. We are seeing vast reductions in the size of wild species populations — 39 percent of marine wildlife and 76 percent of freshwater wildlife in the past 40 years. A billion birds have disappeared from North America since 1970, according to The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 Living Planet Report and The State of North America’s Birds Report. So this means populations of species are getting smaller and smaller in our counties, regions, states and across the whole continent (as well as globally).

But who are we losing, where, how, and what are local actions that can be taken to help support species? There aren’t enough Ph.D. scientists out there to count species. Also, scientists tend to ask highly theoretical questions about what’s going on, whereas regular people often have more direct concerns, such as, “I love migrating warblers coming through my backyard every year, why are there fewer of them?”

Citizen science is regular people contributing to scientific research, but it’s also about local communities empowering themselves to document the species that live among us or migrate through, so we can figure out how to protect them.

What would be a good example?

For decades, citizen scientists have helped professional monitoring efforts along the coast of California, counting birds, mammals and those spineless creatures known as invertebrates in the tide pools. That data has been used to create more marine sanctuaries in that region than exist anywhere else on the planet.

What’s driving species extinctions?

The biggest culprit in worldwide species loss is habitat loss. When communities consider a new housing or shopping mall development, we need to go beyond what’s called an “environmental impact report.” Those are super important, but they don’t capture the full picture of what is lost when we pave over natural areas. We need to be more informed and more careful about what kinds of habitat we allow to be developed.

For example, in California we have lost most of our oak woodlands, which is rich habitat for many native species. As climate change encroaches, our native species are going to have more space and time to adapt (if they can) in their native habitats. But oak woodlands are still being plowed over to plant vineyards in California. Now, planting vineyards is fine — but don’t do it on oak woodlands. We need citizen scientists documenting where species are so communities can make better decisions about where to develop.

How can a citizen get involved?

Well one easy citizen science tool is called iNaturalist. It’s a web-based app, and it operates something like Facebook. You can create a project on iNaturalist, like “California oak woodlands” and enjoin people to help start documenting all the oak woodlands in the state! My dream is to see a living map of species on land and water constantly updated and viewable on an integrated map.

What if you don’t get out in nature much?

There’s a great resource for all kinds of citizen science projects, even those you can do at home on your computer — visit scistarter.com.

What breakthrough discoveries can emerge from citizen science projects?

One incredibly cool project is run by a climatologist from Cornell University, Toby Ault. He is asking people to monitor lilac trees in their back yards — when they form leaves and flowers, when the flowers die. He’s building on a database of lilac observations that has been made by citizens since the 1950s.

Lilac trees and bushes have been around for millions of years. They have survived multiple ice ages, huge climactic shifts like the one we are experiencing now. Ault thinks the lilacs are picking up a signal from the environment that is allowing them to adapt. What kind of signal, how the heck are they doing that? Ault is asking people to monitor their own trees, or if they don’t have them to plant a lilac clone. This kind of question can only be addressed with the aid of an army of citizen volunteers — because the scope of the problem is so huge. And the information gleaned from this will be powerful as we try to adapt to climate change, ourselves. Learn from the lilacs! You can help him here.

How do scientists ensure that data collected by volunteers will meet accuracy standards?

This is an essential citizen science question. It’s incredibly important to use nationally vetted database protocols for your citizen science. For example, don’t just monitor streams your own way, do it according to EPA’s guidelines.

iNaturalist is a great example of a citizen science tool with built in accuracy parameters. Using a smartphone, participants make a photographic “observation” of a species — plant, bird, mammal, bug — and using the phone’s global positioning software, iNaturalist assigns the photo a date, a time, a latitude and a longitude. So right there, we know exactly where that species was observed. iNaturalist streams people’s nature observations like Facebook does, and experts from around the world confirm or correct a species designation. And if you have no idea what the species name is for the thing you observed, they fill that in. When three experts agree, yes, that is a Deppya splendens, the observation becomes “museum grade” and is uploaded to the Global Bioinformatic Data Facility (GBIF), which is used by scientists all over the world.

This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.

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