Explosion! Renaissance! Revolution! Tsunami! This is the sort of (admittedly overblown) language you might have overheard at the first-ever large-scale conference on citizen science, to describe the recent growth of the phenomenon whereby people from outside the academy contribute valuable observations and data to those working within it.
Thanks to programs on websites like Scistarter and Citizen Science Central, anyone who wants to can affect the scientific record by studying squirrels, counting herring, collecting rainfall, planting chestnuts, designing proteins, hunting for archeological sites, measuring snow, listening for noise pollution, finding ladybugs, and documenting road kill. You can join a small, local citizen-science project going on in your nearest city park, forest, stream, or public school. Or you can be a part of a much larger program: some 500,000 people so far have participated in GalaxyZoo, in which participants help map the universe by analyzing the shapes of galaxies.
My own experience as a citizen scientist began six years ago with a project called MAPS, or Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship, for which I caught songbirds along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. Under the tutelage of a licensed bird-bander and ornithologist, I held a yellow-breasted chat in my hands and swabbed the private parts of a blue grosbeak as part of an avian flu study. Since then I’ve gone on to keep a "nature notebook" of the leafing and flowering of plants in my backyard. I’ve stood with third-graders on their school playground, watching for pigeons and mourning doves. And I’ve submitted fake data to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center as it tested its formats for cricket and katydid surveys. For the last two years, I’ve also been working with tiger beetle experts David Pearson and Barry Knisley, co-authors of A Field Guide to Tiger Beetles in the United States and Canada, trying to learn more about the relatively unknown and unsung western red-bellied tiger beetle.
I’m pretty much gaga for citizen science, as you can probably gather, and so I felt right at home attending the aforementioned conference a couple of weekends ago in Portland, Oregon. The event, "Public Participation in Scientific Research," attracted some 300 participants (pictured), with 20 talks by those considered to be burgeoning celebrities in the field. An alarming number of pastries were served, and enough coffee -- if I had to quantify my own research -- to fill 398.25 bathtubs. Directly outside the conference center, Portland’s efficient light rail system could dispatch us all within minutes to anywhere we wanted to go in this city of bookstores, rose gardens, bike paths, and state-of the-art recycling bins. (As a citizen scientist -- once again, committed to quantifiable data -- I tried to see how many restaurants I could fit into my pocketbook. The final results will be published in my next credit card bill.)
The conference highlighted the importance of the relationship between the professional scientists who analyze and interpret data, and the laypeople who are increasingly helping them to compile it. Nolan Doesken, a climatologist at Colorado State University, noted that the U.S. National Weather Service has relied on volunteer observations about weather for decades, and with these observations has amassed one of the most useful long-term data sets in North America -- an essential tool for agriculture and for studying climate change. Seth Cooper described how his unique website, Fold.it, has already inspired 250,000 volunteers to play a computer game that is actually helping to design new synthetic proteins; these online gamers regularly out-compute the computers, and come up with answers that have eluded scientists in the lab. Arfon Smith from Zooniverse said of his own web-based project that "[w]e’re interested in research problems that particularly require the human eye and brain." Such research problems might include transcribing World War I ship logs to help model climate change over the last century, or categorizing the sounds of whales.
During a pastry break, I talked with Darlene Cavalier, a founder of the aforementioned Scistarter -- and also of Science Cheerleader, an organization made up of current and past pro-sports cheerleaders who also happen to be scientists -- meteorologists, microbiologists, even aeronautical engineers. Darlene, herself a former cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers, believes that citizen science has enormous potential in emergency-response situations. As more people learn to use the mapping and visualization tools that are popular in citizen science, she told me, they will be asked to participate in large-scale projects -- such as tracking the effects of an oil spill or other industrial accident, for example.
Although today’s citizen scientist is typically educated and middle-class, the conference made a point of promoting new partnerships -- between scientists and farmworkers monitoring water quality, say, or the members of a working-class neighborhood testing for air pollution, or a region’s indigenous people looking at the effects of logging on forest management.
Describing one such collaboration, Wallace J. Nichols, a herpetologist from the California Academy of Sciences, began his talk, "Turtles All the Way Down," with the beginning of a poem by Robinson Jeffers. "Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean/ Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn/ The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings. Today/ Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,/ And white seas leap..." He continued with a well-known anecdote about a scientist and a tribal elder who are swapping creation stories. The elder explains that the world sits on the back of an elephant, which stands, in turn, on the back of a turtle. The scientist wonders what the turtle stands on (answer: another turtle). Then she wonders what that turtle stands on (answer: another turtle). They go on like this until the elder finally sighs: "No more questions, young lady. It’s turtles all the way down."
Nichols connected this story to his own youthful fascination with turtles, which took him to Baja California’s Sea of Cortez coastline in the early 1990s as a graduate student. The area’s population of sea turtles at the time had reached a low, and hunting had become illegal. Overnight, fishermen who had caught and eaten these turtles all their lives were deemed criminals. A black market for turtle meat and eggs flourished, and rather soon the five species of turtle native to this coast were considered by the scientific community to be virtually extinct.
But Nichols -- listening to what local men and women had to say -- disagreed. Over the next 15 years, he and others worked with the people living along the Sea of Cortez to study, restore, and monitor the presence of sea turtles. Together they formed the conservation organization Grupo Tortuguero. They helped protect nesting sites and educated the public about pollution and habitat loss. They discovered that loggerhead sea turtles travel back and forth between Japan and Baja California to reproduce. They began to write scientific papers based on their research. Meanwhile, sea turtle populations rebounded.
Nichols emphasized that all this required trust and transparency. Scientists and "citizen scientists" were seen as equals; everyone was engaged both in conservation and research (which today is conducted primarily by non-scientists living in the area, as well as volunteers from environmental and citizen science groups). That research, Nichols told us, is "pretty damn good," and can boast papers in a number of peer-reviewed journals. He ended his discussion by comparing his work with citizen scientists to some starfish species that reproduce by breaking in two, creating new starfish -- which then go on to divide into new and separate starfish themselves.
After the talk, one such starfish came up to Nichols to share his own story. As a college student, he told Nichols, he had thought it would be fun to work with Grupo Tortoguero for a summer, a decision that almost killed him when his group’s boat got caught in a storm and he was stranded on an island without food for two days. "It was so great, so awesome," this still-young man was saying now, as he pumped Nichols’ hand and recalled the experience. "I went on to get a Masters in Science Education, and I’m now working on my second Masters in Museum Studies."
As Nichols explained to me afterward, it’s really "turtles all the way up," with one person’s "awesome" experience in citizen science often leading to someone else’s.
Over the course of the conference, graduate students mixed with program directors, policy analysts with scientists, environmentalists with tribal representatives. As well as sharing their success stories, these people were interested in exploring various problems and challenges.
The quality of data provided by citizen scientists remains an ongoing concern. One exhibit described how, in a single project designed to monitor alpine species, 33 percent of the citizen-scientists’ observations were later proven wrong. As I absorbed that information, a woman behind me noted that another study had matched volunteer observations with those of scientific "experts" -- and found significant errors among the latter group’s observations, too. In truth, most citizen-science projects have come up with acceptable ways to monitor their data and deal with a certain amount of inconsistency and error.
Of bigger concern than quality, though, may be the sheer quantity of data. Dozens of programs, for example, are now tracking global warming through phenology, the study of a plant’s or animal’s changes or life cycles. One of these phenology programs, the five-year-old Nature’s Notebook, just recorded its one millionth observation. So: how, exactly, do we go about coordinating and unifying all that information? How do we ensure that all this data -- collected by thousands of citizen scientists like me -- is valued and used?
And what about that term "citizen scientist?" Doesn’t it imply a certain exclusivity? How does it resonate with farmworkers in California or fishermen in Mexico?
These are good questions to be asking of a field that’s still in its early stages. Above all, citizen science -- or whatever we decide to call it -- is evolving quickly. This was the first such conference of its kind. It won’t be the last.
Image: Alan Wolf and Wayne MacPhail