By Malin Clyde, with the CSA Professional Development Working Group
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Are you a community organization looking to engage a scientist to help with your citizen science project? Accessing scientific expertise is an important element of citizen science, but can be daunting, especially for those outside of university communities. As it happens, scientific expertise can be found in many other institutions such as public agencies, not-for-profit organizations, zoos, museums, or within the broader citizen science community, and the important process of integrating scientific rigor into citizen science projects can be done in many different ways.
We explore here examples of citizen science projects that evolved in various ways and in different kinds of institutions. We hope to hear from you, through the comments section below, about other mechanisms of integrating science expertise into citizen science projects.
There are many examples of citizen science projects based at universities that are strongly tied to academic research. Examples include eBird at Cornell University as well as smaller projects such as the Portland Urban Coyote Project at Portland State University or Bugs in our Backyard based at Colby College. Often there is a non-profit partner (like the Audubon Society with eBird and with the Coyote Project), but most of these projects share a strong tie to the academic work of researchers within the institution. A consistent element in the marketing of these programs is that participants will be contributing to scientific research, and that someone at the university will analyze the citizen science data, helping to advance our knowledge about how the world works, and, perhaps, publishing scientific papers using the citizen-collected data.
While university-based projects are a well-recognized phenomenon in the citizen science community, they are not necessarily typical or the only way. A quick look at online hubs for citizen science such as SciStarter.org, CitSci.org, Earthwatch.org, and the Stewardship Network: New England shows that many citizen science projects originate outside of universities. If that’s the case, how do they develop rigorous data sampling, and how are their data and science used, if not associated with a university? Where does the data go if a university researcher isn’t using it?
Many citizen programs originate with a need by public agencies for data to help monitor or conserve a resource or species. For example, the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin collects citizen bat observations through the Wisconsin Bat Program to improve distribution data on bats to help conserve threatened and endangered species. Many state agencies charged with regulating hunting have programs that engage resource users (hunters, fishers, trappers) in collecting and reporting data, which is then incorporated into regulatory decisions made by managers (for example, NH Fish and Game Small Game Survey). In these cases, the agencies themselves have scientists that help set up the data collection, help vet and analyze the data, as well as publish the reports based on the findings.
As of 2016, the U.S. government has started to invest and value citizen science in a major way. Recognizing the power of engaging with communities to collect data, all federal agencies will be reporting on efforts to use citizen science and crowd-sourcing in all parts of the US government, including natural resources, transportation, space science, and more (see CitizenScience.gov). Here again, access to scientific expertise may be internal within the agencies, or via partnerships with other organizations. One important and growing aspect of many citizen science programs – government or otherwise – is the use of openly shared data repositories that allow anyone to access and use the data, provided proper attribution. The USGS’s National Phenology Network and iNaturalist are examples of shared citizen science data that receive support from federal agencies.
A significant number of citizen science programs are based in the not-for-profit community, part of nature centers, zoos, museums, conservation organizations, or groups with a mission to understand or appreciate a phenomenon. The ways these programs integrate scientific expertise is as varied as the programs themselves, and while many do not have scientists on staff, forming partnerships is one powerful way these programs build a strong sampling strategy. In the case of Cascade Pika Watch, a rigorous and systematic sampling protocol to monitor these rare mammals was developed using existing tools developed by citsci.org. By using standardized tools, citizen science programs can take advantage of existing training protocols and increase the confidence in data quality by both participants and data users.
The Cooperative Extension system, housed within all U.S. land-grant universities, has been involved in citizen science for decades. Extension operates programs such as the NH Lakes Lay Monitoring Program, that works with volunteers to monitor lake water quality and provides the analyzed data to lake associations to inform policy and local decisions. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension manages the Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System for invasive species, a free tool used by many citizen science programs to map the locations of and stewardship actions on invasive plants and insects. In this case, state-based designated experts verify the crowd-sourced observations and, if necessary, corroborate the sightings. Once verified by experts, the sightings data can be more confidently used by anyone working to mitigate the threat posed by invasives through community action.
Still other citizen science programs have been founded by concerned citizens investigating a problem in order to take action. The Loon Preservation Committee was founded in 1975 by concerned citizens in New Hampshire who wanted to “better understand the reasons for nest failures and the effects of contaminants” on loons (LPC 2015 report). To create a trusted data set to assess trends in loon populations, the group hired biologists to create a data collection system, including a volunteer annual loon census to track the success of nesting loons in the state. Data from these efforts has been used to shape state policy (new laws against lead sinkers) and stewardship decisions (where to place new loon nesting platforms).
Despite these diverse examples of citizen science programs incorporating scientific expertise, it isn’t always smooth sailing. The science profession has it’s own language and culture, which may present a barrier to project coordinators or citizen scientists. The good news is that everyone involved is likely motivated by the same thing: wanting the citizen science data to be accurate, effective and used to advance scientific understanding or inform community decision-making (or both). The Union of Concerned Scientists has a toolkit that addresses some of these issues in Scientist-Community Partnerships: Building Successful Collaborations. Although written for the science community, the guide illustrates some of the barriers – and how to address them – that may arise between scientists and community partners.
Do you have a story to share about how your citizen science project incorporated scientific expertise? What do you do to ensure the scientific integrity of your citizen science project?