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Citizen science at the Conference

Session title: Citizen Science

Speakers: Helen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Lisa Horton, Media Relations Manager at University of East Anglia

Michael Pocock, Ecologist at Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

David Jones, earthworm expert for OPAL, Natural History Museum, Imperial College London

Chair: Katherine Mathieson, Education Director for British Science Association

Strand: Discover It

Structure of session: Panel discussion and Q&A

Report author: Chris Rhodes, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Citizen science, the fusion of research and engagement, appears destined for continued growth and diversification. How can the success of citizen science be measured? What aspects of a citizen science project improve the effectiveness of science communication?

The gauntlet was set for the “most trendy session” at the conference. Katherine Mathieson, Education Director for the British Science Association and session chair, introduced a session which lived up to the hype.

Dr Helen Roy, ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, is an esteemed expert in citizen science with extensive experience through ladybird research. As co-author of a recent review and guide on the current state and practice of citizen science, Helen was perfectly placed to introduce the subject. Diverse approaches to citizen science are already being practiced. Projects vary with respect to resources, participant numbers and roles.

Lisa Horton, Media Relations Manager at the University of East Anglia, showed that time is of the essence. Rapid action was required when ash dieback invaded the UK’s ash tree population in 2012. Forged by a team at UEA over one weekend, the AshTag app enabled citizens to report the spread of the disease. Speed was crucial because autumn leaves would fall within weeks, hampering disease diagnosis. Numerous participants were involved in identification of suspected disease cases, some of which were confirmed, and media coverage was abundant.

Dr Michael Pocock, ecologist at Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, discussed his work on conker trees and their invasive moth pests. Using hypothesis driven science leads to quality data that engages participants, who are motivated to answer interesting questions. The project has evolved to follow lines of enquiry lead by the volunteers, thus morphing into ‘contributory’ citizen science.

Dr David Jones is OPAL’s (Open Air Laboratories) earthworm expert. OPAL encourages citizens to explore their local environment, and has attracted over 500,000 participants. The need for scientist-citizen interaction is paramount, "engagement on the ground, face to face, is second to none". Beneficial outcomes of this work include changing attitudes. Participants learn “greater respect for worms”, organisms which are “more important than they thought”. Monitoring data quality as it is collected is vital, with a need to obtain data of “known” quality, by measuring of error and bias.

Befitting of the session theme, audience questions came thick and fast.

Does one portal collate all citizen science activity? An overarching catalogue does not exist, but a diverse set of hubs were acknowledged (Natural History Museum, Zooniverse for physics, Citizen Science Central, Sci-starter, and Citizen Science Alliance to name a few). The innovative and anarchic quality of disparate citizen science projects, emerging without an overarching structure, can be viewed as something to be celebrated.

What makes a project suitable for citizen science? Michael Pocock’s upcoming work for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has produced a flow chart for determining when citizen science is useful for a project. In many cases, citizen science is not useful, for example searching for caterpillars at the top of a tree would not be amenable to many volunteers. The value of engagement is also an important consideration. A weekly requirement might be too much for many citizen scientists, more ad hoc involvement might be appropriate. The sheer volume of data obtained by citizens can be valuable when compared with that of professionals, as in the case of scuba divers surveying fish diversity.

One skeptic pointed to volunteer participation in survey style science reaching back decades prior to rebranding as ‘citizen science’. What is new in citizen science and how can citizens pursue their own curiosity? The panel pointed to the explosion of citizen science, involving citizens from more diverse backgrounds, rather than being restricted to amateur naturalists who were traditionally involved. A great number of citizens are yet to be reached. There is potential for more citizen-lead projects in future, powered by possibilities generated through advances in communication. Citizen science will also grow as the need for ‘big data’, collected over large spatial and temporal scales, increases.

What is the political impact of citizen science? Does it generate a pool of supporters who advocate continued funding? Citizen science isn't cost free. Some of the panel have not seen more funding as a result of citizen science. Some of the projects were run on a shoestring, but the value came from in getting people involved.

What are perceptions of citizen science within academia? Is it viewed as dilution, reducing the quality of science in comparison with work by professionals? Perceptions are changing. Citizen science can present a ‘win-win’ scenario, where researchers can simultaneously prove themselves to be credible both as scientists and communicators.


Understanding Citizen Science & Environmental Monitoring

UK Ladybird Survey

AshTag app

Conker Tree Science


OPAL earthworms

Natural History Museum


Citizen Science Central


Citizen Science Alliance

Scuba diver measures of fish diversity