Citizen Science Wednesday: Research, Advocacy, and Education

Citizen science is more than just science.

That’s not to say that citizen science isn’t science, because it is, or at least can be. But citizen science as a general field has three broad goals:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly at Merwin Nature Preserve in McLean County, Illinois. Photo by tlindenbaum. Used under Creative Commons license.

Research: This is where the science comes in. Research would encompass any sort of data collecting and analysis that helps humanity as a whole to understand more about the world. The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network is an example that I’d consider to focus on this area; it has strict data collection protocols and a goal of collecting and analyzing information about the butterfly populations at specific locations.

Advocacy: Many citizen science projects have conservation or contribution to policy decision-making as an explicit part of their goals. Even those that don’t, however, could be seen as having some advocacy element. (Few people study something out of their incredible indifference to it.) GLOBE at Night is an example of this. As its website says: “The GLOBE at Night program is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness.”

Education: Learning is a natural consequence of citizen science: As someone participates in a project, they will naturally learn about its subject and about science in general. Journey North has a strong educational component; this project studying wildlife migration and seasonal changes* was originally targeted toward students, and while it’s now open to everyone, learning generally about the subjects covered is still a strong focus.

These categories aren’t really as strict as I’ve described them here; just about all projects have some mix of all three. The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, for example, is not be particularly accessible for casual participation, which somewhat limits its ability to serve as a broad public education tool. But those who do participate are responsible for learning about the wide variety of species studied by the project, and the information they collect is used in land management decisions.

“But is it science,” is a pretty common criticism of citizen science. I think the question misses the point. Citizen science includes research, but that isn’t its sole goal, and I don’t think it has to be to be worthwhile. Moreover, the wide range of available projects means that participants can find a project with the focus—both in subject and in the mix of research, advocacy, and learning—that fits for them.

* The proper term for the study of seasonal changes like ice-out dates, migrations, plant blooming, and the like is “phenology.” I’ll be using that term from here on out, because it’s a great word, although since most people don’t know it (I certainly didn’t before starting this book) I’ll keep defining it.

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