Citizen science

When I was in early elementary school I would spend afternoons catching grasshoppers on the bluff across the street from our house. I’d bring them back to the house and meticulously color their forewings with a Sharpie. I’d then take them back across the street to the hill and release them in the hopes of recapturing them on one of my next forays. I don’t recall how I got it in my head to do this, and I certainly didn’t know at the time that I could use the data from my mark-recapture experiment to determine population numbers. However, that was moot because I never did recapture a single specimen for all of my trying. I suspect that had to do with population numbers compared to my small marked cohort. Of course I didn’t do the requisite control experiment for the effect of copious amounts of Sharpie ink on grasshopper behavior and survival either. So who knows.

It might be argued that this was my first foray into (solitary) citizen science, of a sort. I was a citizen. I was attempting to do science (without a defined hypothesis). I am pretty sure that if I was a kid today I’d be pretty excited about the many actual citizen science initiatives that are available. Heck, I’m not a kid, but I am excited about them now.

My first actual participation in a citizen science initiative – although I don’t recall that jargon being used back then – was in the late-90s with SETI@home. Very quickly after SETI@home started up I was quick on the draw to install the software on my Bondi blue iMac. The system would download a packet of radio telescope data and then my computer would analyze it for non-random signals. It would send the analysis back to the SETI@home server and download a new packet to work on. The software ran as a screensaver on the iMac. The idea was that people could give up their unused CPUs and, with enough participants, crunch through radio telescope data faster than the fastest supercomputer at the time. I loved the idea of being involved in something bigger, and it made me very geeky about SETI in general. I read a ton of SETI books back then, likely a function of trying to avoid thesis writing. I’m still always game for a discussion about the finer points of the Drake Equation.

If we back up even further, its easy to see that citizen science is even older than that. For instance the Christmas Bird Count goes back over a hundred years. It might be argued that what we call citizen science goes back centuries, if not millennia. But in more recent years with the exponential development of the internet, citizen science has become a much bigger deal. So when Science Borealis asked us to think about the biggest thing in our field over the past year, this was one of the things that came to my mind. Specifically, I am noticing citizen science really maturing and growing exponentially; some evidence of which is the increasing publication of peer reviewed articles stemming from such work. A simple Google Scholar search of “citizen science” limited to 2014 pulls up well north of 2000 entries. And, because of their ubiquitous presence and importance in our lives, insects are often the subjects of this type of work.

This expansion and maturation of citizen science hit me thrice this year. First, I was the academic editor on a cool PeerJ paper that detailed data collection leading to a better understanding of invasive Asian camel crickets in North America. Second, I heard a really cool talk by Dr. Claire Rutledge (Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station) at the Entomological Society of Canada annual meeting about the use of wasps as a biomonitoring tool for emerald ash borer. And third, I heard two separate talks by Dr. Elizabeth Elle (Simon Fraser University) and Dr. Rob McGregor (Douglas College) about the UNIBUG work going on in the Greater Vancouver area.

Several things strike me about these projects, and so many more like them:

  • Those involved are highly creative in terms of finding things that people will appreciate and that they will take the time and effort to back up with sweat and time.
  • The organizers look for ways that people can contribute right where they are, whether through their computer or out and about in their local environment.
  • Never having organized one of these initiatives, I assume that a major challenge is organizing, planning, and ensuring robust data collection so that there can be a credible (published!) end product. In other words, they sure must be a lot of work
  • And, most of all, these projects get people to notice the natural world around them and help them to understand the scientific process and the actual rigors of data collection.

That final point is the most important. As scientists we have access to state-of-the-art equipment and analysis platforms. We are able to explore places and concepts that many people will have no opportunity to encounter in their lifetimes. Those of us at research universities have substantial background infrastructure that supports high-level research. When we are stuck in the cliche ivory tower, it can be easy to forget that seeing is believing because we see science working all the time, and we get to discover some really cool things about the natural world.

Not everyone in the public is as privileged as we are, however. So when we get frustrated with the popular discussion on things like climate change, evolution, vaccination, GMOs, or what-have-you, a good part of the responsibility sits on our shoulders. Many people do not have the opportunity or impetus to see and participate in research, so it is no wonder that they misread, misunderstand, or mistrust science and scientists. If we aren’t finding creative ways to get the message out, then we aren’t doing our job. And we shouldn’t expect reciprocal trust or understanding, because we provide nothing to reciprocate.

Engaging the public in scientific discovery, on the other hand, allows them to look deeper. My foray into the SETI literature would never have happened if it were not for SETI@home. I suspect that if, as a grasshopper-Sharpie kid, I had run into some sort of urban insect biodiversity project, I would have been one of the most enthusiastic volunteers that you can imagine.

Engage the public, and they will understand better what we science is all about. I think that 2014 was a big year for citizen science, and I have a feeling that this trend is just going to grow in coming years. And I am happy for that.

Perhaps a good way to end this post is to encourage those who are involved in these sorts of initiatives – either as organizers or participants – to continue on with the exciting work. And, secondly, I’d like to encourage any scientist who is not involved in at least one of these to make a New Year’s resolution to find some time in 2015 to participate and to bring a friend along.

To help with that, here is a list of a few citizen science projects that I’m aware of. Check them out, and send me more examples in the comments or on Twitter (@docdez), and I’ll add to the list. In no particular order:

  • SETI@home – Search for ET on your computer.
  • Bumblebee watch – Send in reports and photographs of bumblebees to help with monitoring pollinator populations.
  • eBird – Collect and submit data on birding observations, and explore data from your own area (there’s an app!).
  • eButterfly – Sort of like eBird, but with butterflies.
  • Notes from Nature – Too cold in the winter for insects or birding? Stay at home and help to digitize museum natural history collections. I personally really enjoy this one (with a nice hot cup of cocoa).
  • Zooniverse – All sorts of projects ranging from astronomy to biology to natural history to humanities. Take your pick.
  • The Genographic Project – Run by the National Geographic Society, submit your DNA and learn about your own history while adding to a larger database on human migration, etc.
  • Feeder Watch – Set up a bird feeder, count the birds that arrive, submit your data. Improve our understanding of bird population trends.
  • iNaturalist – Submit your natural history observations, and learn about your area from what others are reporting.
  • Stardust@home – Search through micrographs for stardust particles collected by a spacecraft. Find one and potentially get published (and you get to name the particle).

Have fun!