Citizens and the art of maintaining science

Wouldn't it be nice to have thousands of collaborators, collecting data and sharing observations, who didn't demand a salary at all? A nation-wide initiative called Project Budburst is enlisting the help of so-called "citizen scientists"

By | April 4, 2008

Wouldn't it be nice to have thousands of collaborators, collecting data and sharing observations, who didn't demand a salary at all? A nation-wide initiative called Project Budburst is enlisting the help of so-called "citizen scientists" to nip the effects of linkurl:climate change; in the bud. But is using the public as a data source scientifically sound? The idea of linkurl:citizen science; is nothing new. Hobbyists interested in particular plants or animals have been collecting valuable data for centuries, often even corresponding with professional scientists, publishing papers, and presenting work at scientific meetings. Historically, however, amateur naturalists tended to come to the professionals when they found something interesting. Now, in large part thanks to the internet, it's the other way around. Project Budburst is a field campaign to track the effects of linkurl:global warming; in the US by monitoring the seasonal activities of a variety of plant species. Volunteers from across the country are urged to watch for key "phenophases" — events such as first leafing, first flower or seed dispersal — and record their observations on the project's linkurl:website.; Project Budburst "allows individuals to feel they are part of a greater understanding of climate change," said project coordinator Sandra Henderson of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The project — which is backed by, among others, the National Science Foundation, the USDA Forest Service, and research institutions in seven states — has two main goals, Henderson told The Scientist. "First and foremost, it's an education and outreach effort. But we also hope to collect useful data that will help scientists." A linkurl:pilot project; run last spring involved volunteer contributors across 26 states who recorded a total of 913 phenological events. Based on the high rates of participation in states such as Utah, Michigan, and Colorado, this year's scheme aims to be larger and more comprehensive nation-wide. Using citizen science networks allows researchers to gather vast amounts of data and carry out large-scale studies more feasibly than would otherwise be possible, said Graham Appleton, head of publicity at the linkurl:British Trust for Ornithology; (BTO). He told The Scientist that the amount of time invested by volunteers in the UK each year was "equivalent to over one thousand full-time staff." Humphrey Crick, a senior ecologist with the BTO, said the role of the scientist is "absolutely crucial" for designing citizen science projects with very clear instructions. He recognizes that collecting data in this way can introduce biases, but noted that their effects should be constant over time, so should not greatly affect the ability to reveal changes based on long-term trends. For example, the BTO's linkurl:Common Birds Census; suggests that the number of European starlings in the UK declined by 50% since the mid-1970s; a result that Crick said is robust even if the data — much of which was collected by non-scientists — doesn't necessarily indicate the absolute size of the bird's population. Furthermore, he said that statistical methods can be used to minimize biases and remove peculiar data. Researchers at the linkurl:Cornell Lab of Ornithology,; which has been involved in large-scale, citizen science projects for over 40 years, use clearly defined protocols to "dampen out some of the variation" introduced by using many different data collectors, said Janis Dickinson, director of the citizen science program there. In their bird watching programs, they require their participants to log the time spent observing, and to record occasions even when no sightings are made. Still, Dickinson acknowledged that some errors can creep in to the data, and though this introduces more variation, she feels that error and sample size balance each other out. "As long as the data are not biased, error is not such a huge problem when you have very large sample sizes," she said. What do you think: Can data collected by average joes be scientifically valid and useful? Share your thoughts on citizen science, by posting a linkurl:comment; to this blog.


Avatar of: James Ketchum

James Ketchum

Posts: 2

April 4, 2008

I think it's a great idea. Probably a trend for the future in many fields.\n\nGlobal warming offsets need grassroots support. For example, global warming may be why plants in our garden (Santa Rosa, CA) appeared earlier this year, after a mild winter.\n\nJim Ketchum, MD
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

April 4, 2008

I'm not a "professional scientist". (I read The Scientist for general interest.) But I think that if I (or a thousand others like me) were to volunteer to gather data in an area of interest, I/we could be reasonably counted on to deliver reliable observations. We recognize the importance of research. This isn't like a website poll that gets flooded by hundreds of opinionated folks with some social/political agenda. If science were to reject the offerings of "amateur" observers, we'd know a lot less about incoming meteors and other phenomena.
Avatar of: guy van elsacker

guy van elsacker

Posts: 4

April 4, 2008

Let's be clear.Science was and will never be an ultimate unchangeable wisdom.Science is rarely build up by mutual confirmation but rather by contradiction.\nThe idea of citizen science is no new. It exist over thousand of years, when our ancestors observed certain phenomenas looked for empiric confirmation and brought this observations over to the next generations. \nOnly in the last century we cristalized\nscience as a protected area only belonging to the few which where "allowed" to perform. Business interests with patents and (over)regulations in order to protect this patents and interests have the rare effect that they don't enhance science but inhibit science. \nThis all to come to two very important parts of science that will never change, namely perception and deduction. This extremely important parts are the gigantic power of Citizen Science because millions of eyes will bring more then the "Selected" brains of the "real" scientists.\n\nProf.Guy Van Elsacker Dr.Sc. \n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

April 5, 2008

if you are a scientist, you think:\n\nco2 effects will be globally distributed\n\nwarming will be globally distributed\n\nthese two theorem are both not true by Giss data sets and trophoshere 500 m data sets\n\nin fact trophosphere data do not correspond to surface data\n\nthis is the "data" for global warming\n\nit is widely available to all who look\n\nglobal warming is the biggest hoax on humanity that has ever existed. and represents a wealth transfer from the public to the few for no benefit\n\nI think you should examine the temperature data and read the climate literature
Avatar of: Nasar S.K.T.

Nasar S.K.T.

Posts: 9

April 6, 2008

Our best wishes to Project Budburst for a good initiative.\nOur experience in West Bengal State (India) with agricultureal and agriculture-related Participatory Research & Development (APR&D) has time and again showed that participation of stake holders in R&D programmes benefits all concerned. Work-for-free on data collection etc is not a priority matter with us. More importantly, field level research under less- or uncontrolled conditions leads the untrained - thus, unbiased - minds of farmers and other stakeholders to bring out perspectives and ideas otherwise overlooked by formally trained - and at times 'biased'- minds of scientists. Nevertheless, scientists' lab work under controlled conditions to analyse existing technologies and developed well-researched developmental protocols remains inevitably crucial. \nWe believe that citizens' participation in selected research ventures would pay dividends and pop up grass-roots innovations and new paradigms. \nWe support your worthy cause.

April 7, 2008

Professional scientists are never biased. Ever. (Really?)\n\nHmmm... to me worrying that amateur scientists are more biased than professionals indicates a bias.Of course there is bias - you live in an imperfect world and you just need to figure out how to deal with it.\n\nPeople who engage with a problem will tend to learn and do more about it. If the idea of research is to somehow better society, it seems to me that the method of collecting data is making a huge dent toward achieving that goal, by engaging large numbers of people with Global Climate Change, the brand.\n\nMarketers try very hard to engage people with advertisements, contests, and other activities. Global warming is now becoming a "brand" in the sense that large numbers of people recognize it, have feelings about it, want to engage with it. \n\nPerhaps the scientist's bias is that it is more important to collect data than to allow people to use data...?

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