There is a buzz of excitement around citizen science currently. At its best citizen science can allow excellent engagement of people with science and nature, and it can be real science.
Last week, scientists at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Natural History Museum published a review of citizen science [PDF], which looks at the current state of citizen science, looks back on its history, and looks forward to the future potential of citizen science, including the use of technology.
Knowing all about citizen science is one thing, but knowing how to do it is another – so we also wrote a "how to" Guide to Citizen Science [PDF] which includes really practical advice based on our experience and all the evidence we collected during the review. Both publications were commissioned by the United Kingdom Environmental Observation Framework (UKEOF) and can also be downloaded from their website.
Of course, the things that today we call "citizen science" are not brand new. In Britain, the recording of animals and plants by volunteers has been going on for centuries, especially since the time of people like John Ray (the "father of natural history"). This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Atlas of the British Flora – with the monumental, magnificent effort of botanists that provided the data. Over the past 35 years, the Biological Records Centre at CEH has been publishing atlases of animal and plant groups at the rate of three per year. Many of those atlases now are repeat surveys, so we can chart the changing distributions of animals and plants. Clearly, volunteer data collection is much older than the term "citizen science".
However, the future of citizen science is looking exciting. There are lots of technological innovations (which especially appeals to the geek in us: how about plugging a pollution sensor into your smartphone, do-it-yourself remote sensing with a camera attached to a kite or harvesting twitter messages to track the spread of tree diseases?). There is a huge diversity of projects that allow mass participation; simply download an app and you can use your smartphone as a handheld data recorder to contribute to real science! But there is also lots of fantastic face-to-face engagement, which provides a quality of engagement almost impossible via the internet. Volunteers can provide data, but they can also get involved with analysing data and interpreting results. And citizen science is not limited to professionals asking volunteers to do something – more and more volunteers are working collaboratively with scientists, so that communities get answers to the questions that are important to them. Finally, the data collected by volunteers (with the appropriate checks and balances for quality control) is becoming increasingly trusted and used by scientists and policy-makers.
I’m passionate about citizen science. It provides us, as society, with the data we need to address important questions around environmental change. It also provides a way in which anyone can get involved in science and, in many cases, to get engaged with their natural world. Citizen science, at its best, is real science and potentially life-changing engagement (oh, and it is great fun!) We hope that our enthusiasm for citizen science shines through the Report and the Guide!
Dr Michael Pocock
Dr Michael Pocock is an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. He was one of the team of authors on the two new publications about citizen science commissioned by UKEOF and written by CEH and the Natural History Museum mentioned in the article. The Understanding Citizen Science & Environmental Monitoring project was led by Dr Helen Roy of CEH.