Bridging the gap with citizen science

Who can think of a better way to close the gap between science and society than to actually merge the two together? This is citizen science – the merger of science and the general public.

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The number of national, international, and local citizen science projects is growing by the day. Over the last several years, I’ve seen citizen science claim an impactful position in ecological research and outreach.

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Project BudBurst tracks the timing of plant events like leafing, flowering and fruiting. The data can be used by scientists to measure the response of plants to factors like climate change.
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The Christmas Bird Count has been around for over 100 years and has allowed scientists to track variation in bird populations in a changing world.
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Citizen science programs like The Hudson Eel Project excel at connecting science and conservation with local communities.
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The brand new Citizen Science Association is working hard to advance                     the growing field.


There’s no doubt that citizen science is exploding on the scene. And for good reason. Not only do these programs bring science and conservation to the general public in a connective and tangible way, but the number of ongoing and published scientific studies using citizen science data is mounting.

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The authors of this paper used two different citizen science projects to show how climate is affecting bird communities.


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A paper presenting the utility of citizen science in conservation efforts.
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I’m proud to say I’m using citizen science in the final chapter of my PhD.

Despite the valiant efforts of professional scientists to use citizen science as an outreach tool, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The shorter gaps are being bridged, but the wider ones will take more effort.

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The problem is simple, where you have more people, you have more citizen scientists. This makes sense, but the issue goes further. It’s not just a matter of how many people are around, it’s also about the area in which they live. A 2012 study by Rajul E Pandya illuminated the fact that groups typically underrepresented in science are also underrepresented in citizen science.

This geographic and socioeconomic disparity is evident in my own research. I’ve been examining seasonal variation in urban and suburban bird communities in New York City and Northern New Jersey using data from the citizen science program eBird. This is what the map looks like:

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The colored points on the map indicate popular spots where citizen scientists are collecting data. Image credit:

One of the great things about eBird is you can check out birding “hotspots”. This is also a problem because birders want to go where they know they will see a lot of birds, so everyone ends up in the same place. Encouraging participants to be pioneers for science by birding in new or atypical locations may help create more hotspots across a wider range.

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Dr. Claus Holzapfel at Rutgers University in Newark conducts campus bird walks during migration to raise awareness of biodiversity in small urban habitats.

It’s unrealistic to expect every place to be a citizen science hotspot like Manhattan, but I believe it’s possible to jump start these programs in nearby communities like Jersey City and Newark, where public participation is extremely low and the population is extremely high. Pandya’s study provides a framework for reaching out to underrepresented communities. The next move is to apply this type of framework and further develop citizen science outreach efforts.

A great place to start is with kids. Last summer, some colleagues and I teamed up with the fantastic outreach department at Rockefeller University to develop a workshop for inner city elementary and secondary school teachers that focused on teaching science through hands on ecology in the urban environment. This year, I’m planning to focus more of the workshop on utilizing citizen science programs in and out of the classroom.

Programs like yardmap and iNatuarlist can be particularly engaging because they can act as social networks as well as a resource for science education. Students can connect with each other through the app or website and share projects with their classmates or across other communities.

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The yardmap community page functions like a social network feed.

As a scientist, evening out the geographic and demographic distribution of citizen science data provide me with a less biased dataset, but science means nothing if it doesn’t reach outside of academia. Expanding citizen science benefits scientists, conservation efforts, and connects scientists with communities through hands-on education, participation and recreation. Our bridges may still be a bit too short, but by getting involved with existing programs and creating new local citizen science programs, we can keep expanding this amazing resource and realize the full potential of merging science and society.


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