I first came across the term “citizen science” a few years ago, whilst looking for volunteer projects in Torbay. I wanted a little side project to run alongside my full-time job in Early Years. Having come from a science background, previously working in the field of Ecotoxicology, the concept of citizen science appealed directly to the “scientist” in me. I applied to support Operation Cetacean with their porpoise monitoring project as a volunteer researcher. I was soon out in the field, training up to collect data!
What actually is “citizen science” though and how can you get involved? Firstly, citizen science is the use of volunteers to collect and classify data sets for many different kinds of project. The UK Environmental Observation Framework states “Citizen science can broadly be defined as the involvement of volunteers in science. It has a vital role in scientific research and education, and the potential to help meet some of the challenging demands of environmental monitoring at the national scale”. Challenging indeed, if you consider that some projects may have whole swathes of data collection and analysis.
The modern-day term was thought to have been used since the 1970’s. However, the concept of volunteering in science, is not a new idea. Volunteers have been contributing to science since the 1800s. Wells Cooke, an ornithologist, from America, opened up his data collection process on bird migratory patterns, in one of the earliest documented citizen science projects. Volunteers recorded their data onto cards, which are still being digitised and catalogued today. You can volunteer on all manner of projects now, from physical turtle research in the Maldives, to recording rock-pool species in a bioblitz, to virtually counting cells on historic microscope slides.
Online platforms such as “The Zooniverse” have enabled citizen science to become more inclusive, opening up a whole community of fellow virtual researchers from varying ages and backgrounds. In fact, they have now become the forefront of Science. Zooniverse researchers published a ‘Research Note of the American Astronomical Society’ in 2019 announcing the discovery of 28 new exoplanet candidates. This was thanks to the volunteers on the Exoplanet Explores Project.
How do you get involved? The old adage “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” fits here, as there are so many great projects run by groups such as the Wildlife Trusts and conservation charities in the UK and Worldwide. It can be as simple as registering with an organisation directly to collect and process data; or signing up to a platform to pick and choose your area of analysis. It really is that simple. Or as Laura Roberts with Operation Cetacean did, set-up your own research team and recruit others to support your project!
The benefits of citizen science are many. Firstly, it allows you to be part of research that may have not been accessible to you before. It may help develop new methodologies, and areas of Science. It breaks down the stigma and exclusiveness that often presents in academic research, enabling transparency, and challenging stereotypes. It enables the everyday researcher to gain skills and experiences, increasing employability. Lastly, speaking from personal experience with Operation Cetacean, it introduces you to like-minded, passionate people who you can learn from, helping you connect to those in the field. The benefits to mental wellbeing from volunteering are also well documented. Citizen science has certainly gone through an evolution since those volunteers tallied up the birds on a piece of card.
Palmer, T.S. (1917). "In memoriam: Wells Woodbridge Cooke" (PDF). The Auk. 34 (2):
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