Darwin day lecture: 5 examples of citizen science research

Friday the 12th of February 2021 marked Darwin Day, the 212th birthday of Charles Darwin, which scientists across the globe annually commemorate with events emphasising Darwin’s contributions to science. This year the Institute celebrated by hosting a Zoom lecture and a virtual coffee room chat with broadcaster and author, Professor Adam Hart. Currently the professor of science communication at the University of Gloucestershire, Prof. Hart gave a brilliant lecture on the growing role of citizen science in academic research, and how it all began with Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia Commons

Citizen science can be described as scientific research conducted by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. It has many benefits, from being a fun family activity, to improving the capacity of the scientific community, as well as increasing the public’s understanding of science. But how did it all start with Darwin? According to Prof. Hart, Darwin was the original citizen scientist: Darwin was not trained as a scientist yet was motivated by curiosity, a love of the natural world, a passion for collecting and recording everything meticulously and, above all, a drive to understand the processes underpinning what he observed in the natural world. This led him to conduct myriad experiments to test his hypotheses. As well as being a citizen scientist himself, he conducted what we might now call “citizen science,” as he recruited a multitude of acquaintances and travelers to write to him with their own observations. This is the essence of citizen science and why this data collection technique can work so well. For years, nature lovers have been unintentionally acting as data collectors but the advent of modern technology and the rise in the number of citizen science-based apps now means that almost anyone can collect data and get involved in current research.

With the pandemic still restricting field work, current research is relying more heavily than ever on citizen science and could be a very valuable resource to engage the public in the latest scientific work. Despite some potential problems with citizen science, including deviations from standard protocols and biases in recording or in the choice of sampling sites, researchers are able to make important insights from the data. In this blog post I’ve explored 5 different types of citizen science projects and the impact they are making in science.

1. The Big Garden Bird Watch (RSPB): Recruiting a large number of volunteers

One of the main benefits of citizen science, particularly in areas such as biodiversity, is the vast amounts of participants and data, providing countless hours to science that would otherwise be impossible with a small team of researchers. Recently I, along with many others in IBAHCM, enjoyed taking part in a well-renowned citizen science project, the Big Garden Bird Watch (BGBW), organised by the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB). Here the RSPB encourage anyone to spend just one hour over a specific weekend in January recording the bird species they see in their garden. As a relatively easy project, the BGBW is a great way to get children involved in bird watching and almost everyone can be involved as the watch is conducted from within the home, simply looking out of the window.  This made it particularly easy this year due to the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in place in the UK and, accordingly, the RSPB reported the highest participation rate yet. According to the RSPB, since its launch in 1979, over 9 million hours have been bird-watched and a staggering 137 million birds have been counted during the BGBW.

2. Climateprediction.net: Ensemble modelling

Climatepreditction.net is a citizen science project that runs climate modelling experiments using the home computers of thousands of volunteers, allowing researchers to answer questions about how climate change is affecting our world now and how it will affect our world in the future. Scientists at Climateprediction.net use a technique called ensemble modelling which runs thousands of climate models, each slightly different from the others, in order to simulate the real world. This type of modelling requires an enormous amount of computing power, which is where volunteers can contribute: offering their computers to run the large number of models required.

3. BioBlitz: Encouraging people to get outdoors

BioBlitz projects are intense surveying projects that ask participants to record all the living species within a designated area in a certain period of time (usually 24 hours) in order to gather basic taxonomic information about the biodiversity in the local area. The goal is to engage public interest in biodiversity, particularly as they provide a platform for the public to interact with scientists and join experts in the field for the one day event. Perhaps the University of Glasgow could host their own BioBlitz? This would be a great way for researchers to actively involve local families from Glasgow.

Citizen science in action by Mount Rainier NPS, via Wikimedia commons

4. Notes from nature: Filling in the gaps and digitising data

Another type of citizen science project asks volunteers to transcribe old documents and data logs to help digitise them by reading the record-keepers’ handwriting, something that computers can’t do. By helping to digitise museum collections and records, volunteers help to make these documents freely accessible to the wider public online and help researchers with the time-consuming process of transcribing. Museum collections in particular provide important “snapshots” of a variety of aspects of life on Earth over time, making it important for this information to be digitised. Notes from nature has multiple projects on the Zooniverse website including the invertebrate time machine.

5. Zooniverse: Providing a platform for citizen science

One difficulty of citizen science is getting your project known in order to recruit the large number of volunteers needed. The Zooniverse website provides an important platform for these projects to be advertised by compiling the world’s largest and most successful citizen science projects.  The success of Zooniverse can be seen through the multitude of published papers on the website’s publication pages that covers a vast range of topics from supernova discoveries to identifying animals of the Serengeti. If you have a citizen science project you can upload your idea to Zooniverse.

The wide range of projects available will hopefully inspire you to awake your inner Darwin and help out with citizen science projects, or alternatively inspire others to be involved in your research! I’m sure that Prof. Adam Hart’s Darwin Day Lecture at IBAHCM will have inspired many of us to investigate the options for contributing to citizen science projects, as well as provided valuable guidance on how to go about conducting citizen science projects to aid our research.

Emma Plant is an MRes student at the University of Glasgow studying ecology and environmental biology, having previously completed her undergrad degree in Zoology. Her research interests are urban ecology with an upcoming project in the summer of 2021 investigating how urbanisation effects the body size and condition of bumblebees. Originally from Lancashire she has spent the last five years in Glasgow, enjoying frequent trips to Loch Lomond.

Emma Plant, MRes student.

Feature image: Original artwork courtesy of PhD researcher Eleni Christoforou, 2021©

Edited by: Lucy Gilbert and Taya Forde

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