If you keep a diary of the birds visiting your garden or log your catches when fishing, you could be a scientist without even realising.
Around the world there are scientific observations being made by amateur researchers which can contribute essential information to professional scientists – welcome to citizen science.
“It’s the systematic collection of data by citizens for a specific purpose,” says marine biologist Dr Andrew Chin. “Number one, it’s systematic. It’s some sort of organised way of collecting data, it’s not just random people collecting random data. And the second thing is it’s for a defined purpose. If you’ve got those two things done, it’s citizen science.”
Citizen science provides a wealth of benefits to both science and society as a whole.
“It’s an excellent way to engage the community in science,” Andrew says. “Scientists can have a reputation for being quite reclusive and poor communicators, I think that’s changing, but if you can involve the community in the actual collection of data you’re bridging that communication gap.
“If you look at the citizen science literature, one of the terms that crops up is democratising science. Where science becomes a more community driven, community accessible exercise.”
Engaging the community can also add legitimacy to the process, especially if it’s an area which is particularly controversial.
Another area where citizen science can benefit traditional science is through the wealth of knowledge it is able to contribute.
“Scientists cannot be everywhere all the time,” Andrew says. “But if you have a large group of people out there systematically collecting the same observations it means the data they collect can be incredibly powerful, it’s a much more complete understanding of the phenomenon you’re studying if you have lot of observers all collecting information.”
Citizen scientists may also be experts in their subject area, such as fishing.
“I work in fisheries and if you want to know where to find an animal, how it moves and what it eats, talk to fishers,” Andrew says. “There are people out there that have been catching animals for a lot longer than I have and they have knowledge in their heads, local knowledge, about these species that can be incredibly valuable.
“Photographs can be especially valuable. We’ve had several instances where photographs have verified range extensions for sharks and rays in Australia and the Pacific. Last year, divers recorded a small eye ray at the Yongala, and the diver involved is now a co-author on that paper. Digital cameras are tougher and cheaper, and add that to a smartphone that can add GPS coordinates and a date stamp to the record, they’re incredibly powerful, pocket-sized data collection tools.”
Therefore, one of the best parts is, you don’t need to have a formal science background to become involved.
“I think citizen scientists need to have interest,” Andrew says. “They just need to be interested about whatever the subject is and be willing to work with people and donate some of their time.”
In fact, many of history’s scientists were actually citizen scientists.
“Before there was organised institutionalised research the scientific process was done by gentlemen researchers, and it was men in those days, gentlemen scholars from rich, wealthy families who were interested in butterflies or birds, or whatever it was, writing books on their observations of natural history or astronomy,” Andrew says. “Science then was citizen science.”
Being involved in citizen science can be more than just data collection, in some cases citizen scientists have made the discoveries directly.
Dr Norm Duke from TropWATER at JCU helped to confirm a citizen science discovery of a mangrove species previously unrecorded in Australia, Haines Orange Mangrove (Bruguiera hainesii). Hidetoshi Kudo ‘found’ the mangrove in a busy Cairns suburb and Norm was consulted to confirm the find.
“For fun he decides that he wants to find out about each of the mangrove species in his local area around Cairns,” says Norm, whose mangrove book Hidetoshi was using as a list to check through. “As he’s looking, he discovers one that’s not on the list. And that’s when he started to make contact with people who know plants.”
As a mangrove specialist, Norm admits he was a little bit jealous at Hidetoshi’s find but acknowledges that no one ‘owns’ a field of science. In fact, Norm invited Hidetoshi to co-author the paper about the discovery.
“We published a paper together and that’s probably the ultimate expression of the way I feel about how this should work,” he says.
But citizen science doesn’t have to be about co-authoring a paper, a journal of bird visitors to your backyard could be citizen science – if leveraged properly.
“If you take observations and you continue them that’s when it starts to turn into science,” Norm says. “People do that not only with living things like birds but they do it with things like the weather; clouds or rain. People like to check their rain gauge and religiously write down what was in the gauge each day. And that’s science.”
How much information is out there that citizen scientists have noticed without realising it’s significant? Norm thinks it’s a lot.
“I recently came across a commercial fisherman who has been in the fishing industry for 40 years and he’s kept a daily diary of all his fish catches over that time,” he says. “I saw that and thought it was like a giant gold nugget. The chances of a scientist doing that in a paid environment is minuscule.
“I reckon there’s a whole lot of heroes out there doing things and not thinking much of it…I had about three honours projects working on his data set.”
Norm admits that in the early years of his career he found it difficult to find the time for citizen science but now he’s embracing it.
“If you’re talking about what science needs then there’s no such thing as citizen scientists – there are only scientists,” he says.
Both Andrew and Norman are running active citizen science projects.
Norman is working on Mangrove Watch, a monitoring program where volunteers collect data for assessment to work out the health of their local area’s shoreline.
Andrew is working on a Shark Search project in the Indo-Pacific region where they aim to build a species checklist of the sharks and rays which occur in the region.