Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
What if it’s not a small group, but an army of thousands? Citizen science may lead the way to a greater understanding of causes and consequences of biodiversity change.
When you look at our diagram of biodiversity science, you might reflect on where the bulk of research to date lies. I think it’s mostly in the upper right “dimensions” circle. We’ve come a long way toward cataloging biodiversity and documenting patterns. The frontiers of our field concern the connections between patterns and human or abiotic drivers, diversity and ecosystems function (and services). To identify patterns in the first place often requires datasets collected at large scales of space and/or time. In their 2010 paper, Devictor et al. gave the first (to my knowledge) evaluation of citizen science by biodiversity scientists as a vehicle for filling this gap. Using examples of citizen science (CS) programs, they present a case for using CS data to answer biogeographic questions and provide guidelines for creating and maintaining successful programs. As a graduate student utilizing citizen science, I’m particularly fond of this paper because it represents a true endorsement of CS by the established scientific community. While there continues to be some skepticism among scientists about the validity and usefulness of CS data, examples provided in this and other papers present a powerful case for citizen science as a tool for doing solid science. Previous papers on the subject mainly came from individual case studies or education professionals trumpeting the potential of the field. The fact that these influential scientists recognize the value of the CS approach and provide good examples of its successes is really exciting. They demonstrate that citizen science is not limited to the documentation of biodiversity indicators, but has also contributed to the understanding of the drivers of change (examples given include land use, climate, and acid rain) and mechanisms of response. They also touch on the theory (so far largely untested) that involvement in citizen science will result in more scientifically literate, conservation minded people. If that turns out to be true, then citizen science could be the key to studying and understanding biodiversity, while at the same time saving it.
As I was developing the study for my Master’s thesis, I focused on the skills that I wanted to learn as much as the questions that I was interested in. Citizen science seemed like the perfect opportunity to hone an ability to communicate and engage with the public, while gathering data at volumes and locations that I could not do alone. I was fortunate to find “Beyond Scarcity…” (Devictor et al, 2010) and the roadmap that it provides for creating a successful citizen science program, and also for working with the resulting, potentially imperfect, dataset. The result is Project E-PIG, where I work with volunteers to monitor pollinator abundance and diversity in residential gardens, investigating the role of individual stewardship in augmenting habitat and how that relates to the surrounding landscape. You can check it out here, and find results there soon.
Further reading on citizen science:
Dickinson, J., Zuckerberg, B. & Bonter, D.N. 2010, “Citizen Science as an Ecological Research Tool: Challenges and Benefits.”, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution & Systematics, vol. 41, no. 1. pp149-172
Shirk, J. L., H. L. Ballard, C. C. Wilderman, T. Phillips, A. Wiggins, R. Jordan, E. McCallie, M. Minarchek, B.V. Lewenstein, M. E. Krasny, and R. Bonney. 2012. Public participation in scientific research: a framework for deliberate design. Ecology and Society 17(2): 29.
Hochachka, W.M., Fink, D., Hutchinson, R.A., Sheldon, D., Wong, W.K., Kelling, S. & Ecological and evolutionary informatics 2012, “Data-intensive science applied to broad-scale citizen science”, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 130-137.