Citizen science comes of age


Figure 1.

Remember the old television commercial where two antagonists squared off in the great debate to determine whether a particular light beer was great tasting or less filling? Sometimes, discussions about the merits of citizen science (CS) remind me of that ad – is CS “science” or is it “education”? After reading the papers in this special issue of Frontiers, I think it will become clear that CS is at the interface of science and education and, as such, it can both move research forward and promote public engagement in science.

This special issue begins with three overview papers on CS – its past, present, and future. These papers set the stage for 10 shorter papers, highlighting different aspects of CS. We asked the authors of these short papers not to use this venue to simply promote their programs. Instead, we invited them to focus on a particular aspect of the program and activities as a basis for sharing the “lessons learned” that might be transferrable to other CS projects – perhaps even ones that readers of Frontiers might be inspired to launch after reading this issue. Here, you will find discussions about new tools in development, the need to increase diversity among participants, and approaches to data validation and program assessment, as well as how CS can enhance education in formal and informal settings, and how to engage recreationists in CS efforts.

Managers of large, data-focused programs, such as the Data Observation Network for Earth (DataONE) and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), understand the value of CS, as evidenced by the inclusion of CS in their development. DataONE has a working group focused on addressing the data management needs of CS programs. Wendy Gram, Chief of NEON Education and Public Engagement, notes, “Citizen-science opportunities enable us to make data exciting, by engaging diverse audiences in data collection, visualization, and communication. We want students, educators, and families to do science, and CS activities are one way to make science accessible and interactive for a range of different audiences.” Likewise, Carol Brewer, Professor Emeritus at the University of Montana, has also long been an advocate of using participatory learning to advance both ecology and science education. She explains: “The environmental issues we face today are too important to wait for an enlightened generation to gradually trickle up to save the Earth. We need to engage adults along with their children. We need to reach out to more adults than just the policy and decision makers. After all, adult heads of households are decision makers too.” Brewer believes there are both “advancing the science” and “education” reasons for why CS is more important today than ever before. For example, many of the questions related to global climate change and its consequences require data on species' responses. Brewer continues, “There is a lot of ground to cover and only so many scientists to go around. Engaging with well-trained and enthusiastic people extends the geographic and temporal ranges of the data that can be collected. And CS participants are more than just free labor. Through CS programs, we have the ability to reach adults who have influence now.”

As exciting as current developments in CS are, challenges remain that must be addressed if CS is to achieve its full potential. In particular, there remains an inherent tension between scientific endeavors and educational needs. Educators are embracing CS as an effective way to engage their students or audiences in scientific research. Ecologists should be encouraged to see the value of working with CS participants. If ecologists have concerns regarding CS data quality, they should suggest approaches that would give them more confidence in that data. Scientists and educators must also work to better engage CS participants beyond data collection and to immerse them more fully in the scientific process, including study development, interpretation, and reporting of results. Citizen science can help bridge both social and ecological knowledge gaps by bringing diverse stakeholder groups together.

Citizen-science participants are making important contributions to advancing ecological knowledge, but so much more could be accomplished with this vast array of volunteers if we take the time to find the right balance because it is imperative for advancing ecological science. Ecologists and educators don't have to square off like the antagonists in the beer commercial; we can ensure that CS is useful both scientifically and educationally. As we in Project BudBurst like to say, Timing is everything!, and the right time to fully integrate CS into research programs is now.