We’re halfway into ‘Nature up close and personal’, a six-week NERC funded project being led by the British Science Association (BSA), UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Derby investigating the link between different nature-based activities and wellbeing, including never-seen-before research on nature-based citizen science. Take part here.

BSA Chief Executive, Katherine Mathieson reflects on her experience of ‘Nature up close and personal’, detailing what she’s learnt from the project so far.

I am twirling pondweed with a cane, trying my best to grab a sample without losing my balance and falling into a small pond nestled in the middle of Brotherton Park in Merseyside.

This is one of the first memories I have participating in a nature-based citizen science project. I was 16 years old and I was working on a CREST Award, investigating whether removing blanket weed out of a pond would affect the insects and fish within.

I wouldn’t have exactly called it thrilling, nor particularly relaxing, but I remember the feelings of positivity, and something calming about setting aside my usual whirl of thoughts and focusing on helping the wildlife within the world of this single pond.

Helping wildlife and contributing to scientific knowledge are the main reasons volunteers take part in nature-based citizen science. These were also my motivations for fishing out the pondweed in the first place. But upon reflection, what I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, was the other benefits I got out of the project, primarily my feelings of fulfilment and positivity.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking part in a nature-based citizen science project called ‘Nature up close and personal: A wellbeing experiment’ examining exactly that – does citizen science actually improve my wellbeing? In addition to helping wildlife, I am also providing feedback to a team of scientists on how this activity is making me feel.

Now, I’m sure many of us can relate to being in a better mood or feeling de-stressed after going on a walk or spending time in nature. There’s plenty of research already out there to back this up – a subject known as nature connectedness. Scientists know that simple exposure to nature such as fresh air and exercise has benefits for wellbeing and mental health, there’s even a term used to describe this in Japanese culture called ‘forest bathing’ or ‘shinrin yoku’.

Given that nature-based citizen science projects involve measuring or being surrounded by our natural environment, it would seem likely that taking part in these types of activities would also boost our wellbeing.

However, until now there has been little research into the benefits. ‘Nature up close and personal’ will be the first time ever researchers combine citizen science and nature connectedness to look at the impact on wellbeing. 

This never-seen-before research is asking the public to get up close and personal with nature by doing simple 10-minute activities and recording feedback from their experiences.

To determine which nature-based activities are most effective in boosting wellbeing, there’s a combination of both citizen science and simple noticing nature activities being tested.

Some volunteers, like me, have been asked to do citizen science activities such as record butterflies, or undertake a pollinator count and others to simply notice nature around them. Some are asked to multitask, both recording insects or butterflies while also noticing nature.

If the results of this experiment show that citizen science does in fact improve wellbeing, the results will enable researchers to make better recommendations on the most effective ways to engage with nature for wellbeing, whilst also benefitting the planet. Improved wellbeing may provide an additional incentive for people to get involved in nature-based citizen science, leading to bigger and more reliable datasets.

The question of whether citizen science improves wellbeing is particularly pertinent given nature has been one of the few ways many of us have been able to boost our mood and re-energise amidst the COVID-19 lockdown; indeed, ‘Nature up close and personal’ was funded through a COVID-19 urgency grant.

Equally, the pandemic’s economic ‘pause’ has also been an opportunity for some parts of nature to recover from humanity’s detrimental effects.

I hope the results from this project will help us all as a society to think more strategically about the ways in which we can support both people and the planet in the longer term.

If you’d like to get involved in ‘Nature up close and personal’, there’s still time to sign up, simply click here to get started.