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Citizens sold on science

Enthusiastic volunteers help researchers with the labour-intensive task of collecting data and specimens in the field.

by Tim Lougheed

volunteer_scientists
"The good news is that a lot of field work is so basic. It's not hard to train people for most tasks."

Nova Scotia’s Pugwash Estuary, on the Northumberland Strait across from Prince Edward Island, is the type of place that attracts the attention of naturalists. Featuring a largely undeveloped coastline and forested upland, the area hosts dozens of bird species, both on shore and on surrounding islands.

To safeguard the region’s natural assets, Alice Power and other nearby residents formed Friends of the Pugwash Estuary in 2004. Shortly after, they were introduced to the Community Aquatic Monitoring Program (CAMP), an initiative of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to enlist grassroots organizations to monitor key points around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

With guidance from DFO staff, CAMP transformed Ms. Power and other untrained participants from concerned citizens into citizen scientists. Once a month, from May to September, they visit six sites around the estuary, collecting specific information such as the temperature, salinity and oxygen levels of the water. They’re also called on to collect sediment samples and to identify various species caught in nets.

“It seemed a perfect fit for us, and we have continued to be involved each summer,” she says. “We have learned much about the Pugwash River and Estuary, as well as the surrounding areas and the people who live there. It’s a great way to learn about your community and at the same time contribute to it. It’s also great fun!”

Simon Courtenay, a research scientist at DFO and research professor in biology at the University of New Brunswick, has shepherded CAMP since its inception in 2003. He is no less enthusiastic about its work.

“DFO didn’t have the resources to do something like this,” he explains, noting that CAMP has now expanded to some 35 Gulf locales in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. He coordinates the ongoing work of groups like Friends of the Pugwash in each of these places, gathering data of interest to both the scientific and local communities.

“One of the most gratifying things in the CAMP program has been beach-seining [collecting specimens in nets] off the back of somebody’s property and they’ll come down to ask you what you’re doing,” he says, noting that these curious observers tend to be surprised at the volume and variety of creatures they see in the net. “They’re absolutely staggered when they see the number of fish come up, the kinds of things that they’ve been living with for years and they had no idea. They’re absolutely fascinated and you’ve got a convert as soon as they see it.”

For many investigators, these converts become an integral part of their research program.  They may have no institutional affiliation or qualification in a particular field, but these volunteers can nevertheless increase the pace and scope of a specific project. In some cases the goal is simply to add to the number of people who can comb a site looking for samples, getting more done over a limited time span than a handful of specialists could achieve. Moreover, they often live or work in the area being studied, bringing invaluable knowledge, experience and motivation to the task on behalf of researchers who may have just arrived.

There are various ways researchers can take advantage of citizen scientists. A marine researcher heading out on an ocean survey, for example, might be well advised to seek out members of the local fishing industry who spend every day on those same waters. Their input could not only save time, but contribute observations that would be all too easy to miss during a short stint at sea.

Similarly, avian biologists would be foolish to overlook the armies of bird watchers who are only too happy to stake out nesting sites and migratory pathways at key times of the year. Their presence can swell the numbers of keen observers just when they are most needed, making it possible to assess sizeable populations of birds rather than isolated groups.

The use of citizen scientists does pose challenges, however. “You have to figure out what can be done and what can’t,” says David Delaney, a specialist in invasion ecology who recently completed his PhD at McGill University. “The good news is that a lot of field work is so basic. It’s not hard to train people for most tasks.”

Dr. Delaney once mustered more than 1,000 people on a New England beach to look for crabs that don’t normally reside there. The people taking part ranged from elementary and high school students to members of local conservation groups and visiting tourists.

This type of mass participation can dramatically accelerate a research undertaking, but Dr. Delaney appreciates why academics might worry about the quality of the resulting observations. He has responded by writing and speaking about techniques for preparing citizen scientists to meet certain guidelines and standards.

George Sorger, now an emeritus professor of biology at McMaster University, has taken up to five weeks to teach individuals how to make scientific measurements. He was well motivated to do so, since at one point his laboratory was turning out evidence of pollution problems that eventually sent local authorities to court. The findings had to hold up not only to peer review but also to the scrutiny of lawyers.

The data did hold up, which Dr. Sorger takes as a testament to the larger role citizen science can play in society. “The social function that we gave this was not just to teach students how to do things, but to actually pinpoint problems that the community was concerned about.” he says.

Graham Whitelaw echoes that view. Starting in 2001, the Queen’s University environmental studies professor directed a national network of community-based monitoring projects at 31 sites across the country. Citizen scientists carried out projects such as tracking water quality in Alberta’s Bow River, using lichens to study air quality in central Ontario, and following the health of a unique family of mussels on Cape Breton Island. But much of this activity ceased in 2007 when the federal government eliminated most of the funding for the Ecological Monitoring and Awareness Network (EMAN), the agency that had provided the primary support.

Dr. Whitelaw is currently involved with organizations that are using local groups to collect environmental information on the Oak Ridges Moraine, a prized greenbelt region around Toronto that could be opened to development once the planning period wraps up in 2015. In the meantime, he says, local residents are eager to gather facts and figures that could put the environmental impact of development in perspective. “If there’s no data,” he warns, “it might make it easier for the plan to be opened up.”

This aspect of locals gathering information for their own benefit adds to the empowerment and dedication of citizen scientists. Back East, Harry Collins, who used to work as an interpreter at Kouchibouguac National Park, now heads a CAMP group participating in that neck of New Brunswick, about 150 km up the coast from Pugwash. “What we want to do,” he says, “is direct the science in our own area of interest, which happens to be the Miramichi watershed.”

Mr. Collins adds that “volunteer” does not inevitably mean “amateur,” emphasizing that citizen scientists can provide relevant material to determine how the watershed should be managed. “Bureaucrats need to understand that you don’t have to be part of a university or government to undertake credible science.”

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Helping citizen scientists to make the grade

If data collected by lay participants is to become part of a formal scientific study or publication, then “validation is critically important,” says ecologist David Delaney. “That’s a labour-intensive step, but a vital step. The only thing worse than not having data is including inaccurate data.”

In his own work using citizen scientists to collect details about different crab species, 
he first conducted pilot runs, comparing the work of volunteers to that of graduate students with extensive knowledge in this field. Each group submitted results for the species, sex and size of the crabs they had collected, along with the crabs themselves. Dr. Delaney and others then looked 
for errors in these observations, coming up with averages that could be stated and included in the findings. Volunteers and their error rates were 
then sorted according to their age, education and other background factors, which determined the type of contribution they could make to the project.

“For example, we could actually say if we wanted 95 percent accuracy, we needed Seventh Graders and above,” says Dr. Delaney. “From then on we never had to do another validation study and we could have a high level of quality assurance to our data.”

A somewhat more labour-intensive strategy is to have a professional on site, either to train people in collecting data or to vet their findings. Graham Whitelaw of Queen’s University recalls bringing in an expert to simplify an intricate set of 14 separate protocols for determining the health of trees that citizen scientists were monitoring.

“We challenged him and he came up with three categories of tree health – very healthy, middling and a problem,” says Dr. Whitelaw. “He came out and taught our students for many years on the Niagara Escarpment and also did training right across Canada.”

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Logging in to the environment

Have you spotted a bear recently, or some other interesting animal or plant? If so, Yolanda Wiersma, a professor of biology at Memorial University, would like to hear from you. Her new website, www.nlnature.com, asks users to log sightings of wildlife and species at risk in Newfoundland as the province’s contribution to a larger, Canada-wide project called Geoweb led by Renée Sieber, a professor in the McGill School of the Environment at McGill University.

The goal of the project is to engage the
public as “citizen sensors,” explains Dr. Wiersma. “They’re sensing the environment just like instruments you might put out in the environment as a researcher, except they’re real bodies, often with local knowledge and they’re sharing information with each other and the research team.”

There are four different nodes of the project across Canada, each using the Internet and geographical information to address a different environmental issue. The Newfoundland node is focused on wildlife and species-at-risk. Another node, led by Professor Brian Klinkenberg and 
PhD student Alan McConchie at the University of British Columbia, is investigating public reporting of invasive alien plant species. A third, co-ordinated by UBC-Okanagan graduate student Pamela Tudge, is looking at local food production and the environment, while a fourth is examining organic farming in the Kawartha region of Ontario.

The research is funded by the Geomatics for Informed Decisions Network, one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence.

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Comments on this Article

Great article - especially the attention you paid to how concerns about rigour were handled. To learn more about this kind of community-involved work happening all across Canada, try connecting with these two networks: http://www.communityservicelearning.ca/ AND http://communityresearchcanada.ca/

Posted by Todd Barr, Apr 22, 2010 8:31 AM

Crabs, birds, and bears, oh my! Great article about some really important citizen science projects.

I'm part of a new website, Science for Citizens (http://scienceforcitizens.net), which is putting together a giant database of citizen science projects just like these. The goal is to provide a one-stop shop for volunteers who are interested in pursuing citizen science projects.

You should check out the beta site and let us know what you think!

Best
John | Sci4Cits
info@scienceforcitizens.net

Posted by John Ohab, Apr 21, 2010 9:22 PM


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