In 2020, COVID-19 disrupted nearly every aspect of life. As lockdowns ramped up, professional science studies suffered worldwide. As these projects languished, community programs—featuring children and adults alike—flourished. Citizen scientists to the rescue!
Much scientific study involves long-term tracking of animals, plants, and ecosystems. Observing organisms and environments over time allows researchers to analyze the effects of natural events (such as storms and wildfires) and human activities (such as construction and development). Such ongoing studies offer insights into patterns and processes. They also help experts predict future conditions.
In the spring of 2020, travel restrictions and social distancing forced career scientists to cancel or pause their work. The breaks reduced the accuracy of weather forecasts and created large data gaps in astronomy, biology, and other areas. More than ever, scientists began relying on other sources of information.
For years, science has benefited from the work of citizen scientists. By engaging volunteers, citizen science can yield more data and cover larger areas than professional scientists can achieve on their own.
Qualified researchers recruit and train citizens for certain jobs. Citizen science projects often involve collecting observations of plants and animals, daily rainfall totals, water or soil quality, or asteroid activity. Volunteers sometimes translate ancient scientific writings.
The United States has several long-term monitoring programs such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). NEON operates 81 field sites. At each, citizen scientists study climate, landforms, vegetation, and more. Many state and local government agencies conduct similar activities.
In other programs, citizen scientists participate in tracking butterflies or birds, recording seasonal activity in plants and animals, verifying data collected by satellites, documenting new insect species, discovering exoplanets, and even finding cures for rare diseases.
To ensure data quality, citizen science programs often provide extensive training and support. They construct data entry apps so that volunteers can’t mistakenly input dates in the future. They also flag unusual reports for review. Several programs like eBird and eButterfly involve expert reviewers. These experts evaluate and verify citizen scientist reports before publishing the data.
Citizen science benefits go beyond bailing out the experts. They help participants too. Joining a community science program can deepen contributors’ connection to an area and increase their understanding of the flora and fauna they monitor. Researcher Theresa Crimmins of the University of Arizona says participants say that “making observations has enabled them to see and experience much more in places they know well, and to enjoy those places all the more.”
Have you contributed as a citizen scientist? If so, tell us about it in the comments below.