Non-partisan campaigns to get out the vote occur before every election. It helps remind us of our rights and responsibilities to participate in a democratic society. But we all too often forget that voting is only one of the ways we can contribute to our collective future.
Citizen science is another. This type of science is not the elite activity where a few operate the wheels of knowledge production, but an egalitarian process conducted by everyday people, sometimes in cooperation with professional scientists and sometimes operating alone, or in communities.
The concept is simple: use the power of many to gather data on a scale that no single scientist could gather in a lifetime. It takes another form that you may know, of amateur scientists, hackers, makers, or tinkerers. They are techies whose curiosity knows no bounds. With either form, it is how people claim their rights and responsibilities to participate in scientific research. It is how non-scientists help create and harness the power of new knowledge.
From Astronomy to Zoology, this is an era in which the masses of ordinary people can make scientific contributions. And just in time.
We face a precarious future. Climate change, emerging diseases, deforestation, carcinogenic pollution, and over-population. The list is endless. I find hopeful clues for answers from citizen science: both in the massive science-society collaborations and the do-it-yourself discoveries.
President Obama agrees. Today, even as he announces his plan to address climate change, the White House program called Champions of Change will be celebrating the power of citizen science. This week’s Champions of Change include some pioneering, brave scientists who work in concert with the public and some of the curious, innovative people wanting to put their free time and energy to a meaningful purpose. Together, scientists and the public are democratizing science. They represent broad horizons for the change that is possible with citizen science.
Among the champions are Do-It-Yourself hackers building tools for neuroscience, studies of bioluminescence, and open-source space exploration. Birdwatchers restoring and monitoring populations of American Kestrels. Residents in communities concerned about industrial pollution monitoring the quality of air and water for environmental toxins, collecting data needed for developing new zoning laws and enforcement.
More champions guide amateur astronomers involved in asteroid research, volunteers in exploring for fossils and communities in monitoring watersheds and inventorying biodiversity that might be threatened by urban sprawl in Puerto Rico. Scientists like Dr. Julia Parrish who developed COASST, a program to monitor marine health. Dr. Karen Oberhauser who developed Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, full of participants who protect abandoned fields as wildflower gardens. Dr. Sandra Henderson of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and creator of BudBurst to track the arrival of Spring from year to year. And Dr. John Rowden, Director of Citizen Science at New York City Audubon, who engaged the deaf & hard-of-hearing community in shorebird and horseshoe crab research in Jamaica Bay, and brought students from a “second chance” high school into research on the Bronx River estuary. These academics are daring enough to trust the public to take part in science.
Let’s take a closer look at extraordinary endeavors that ordinary people can do when science is within reach. One Champion of Change, Mike Cohn, is a participant in three projects administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He uses each of these projects to aggregate data for his own mission.
With the online tool YardMap, Mike has created an extensive and detailed map of the habitat of a privately owned corporate park where he works. The map includes nest boxes and bird feeders that he placed, monitors, and reports observations about to NestWatch and Project FeederWatch>.
My research is made possible by people, like Mike, who contribute their observations to our central data repository. I was part of the team that set NestWatch and YardMap in motion. From the beginning, we envisioned these tools useful for more than just ourselves.
YardMap grew from our realization that nature conservation was no longer only about protecting wilderness. With 60% of the U.S. held by private landowners, what happens in residential areas and corporate parks is of significant importance. Most private lands are divided into small parcels. Each parcel on its own is like a single vote. It cannot determine widespread ecological value on its own, but cumulatively, with millions of other parcels, will make a difference. Yes, it can. Yet, there is no agency charged with overseeing and coordinating the ecological management of private, residential, corporate, and industrial lands. That’s a problem because we, the people, dominate Earth’s ecosystems.
That means we, the people, can cooperate and coordinate to find the solution. Tools like YardMap provide the public with access to the methods of science and the capacity of social networks to coordinate in order to make change based on new, shared discoveries.
It turns out that Mike envisions these tools for more than just himself too.
Most ingenious are Mike’s plans to involve veteran soldiers in citizen-science efforts. When Mike returned from contract work in Afghanistan, he eased his transition home with therapeutic outdoor recreation. When he returned to a 9-5 job in a corporate park, he no longer had time to visit the wild lands. Instead, he began modifying the corporate park to bring the fish and birds to him. Still, he needed a greater purpose for pursuing his hobbies of fishing and birding. He found the needed validation in the form of citizen science, and he believes veterans will too.
Mike Cohn’s vision for Soldiers2Scientists is to offer all veterans transitioning back to civilian life the opportunity to continue to protect and serve their country through citizen science. The purpose is focused on habitat restoration and conservation. Rhiannon Crain, project leader of YardMap, says “the Cornell Lab is honored to provide the technology and support that enable Mike, and thousands of others like him, to contribute to scientific discovery. We, in part, measure our work a success when our participants put our tools to use for purposes beyond those we imagined.”
While the Champions of Change are honored at the White House, let’s also give a big thanks to the unsung heroes: Here’s a shout-out to the millions of people already using citizen science to improve the world. If these champions stir your curiosity about citizen science, learn more about the array of opportunities through the SciStarter community, where remarkable people from all walks of life are making a difference every day.
Participating in democracy by submitting a voting ballot can bring change. But don’t stop there. To pull humanity through our biggest challenges, participate in democratizing science. Get out the data. Submit your observations like a ballot to seize the power of creating new knowledge.