By Margriet Ruurs
Definition - noun cit·i·zen \ˈsi-tə-zən also -sən\ \ˈsī-ən(t)s\
Citizen science (also known as crowd science, civic science or volunteer monitoring) is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists.
Are you a citizen interested in science? Have you always had a secret wish to be a scientist, but instead you ended up being a bookkeeper, a manager, a writer? There is still hope! You can participate in, and contribute to, science projects around the globe. Making use of the internet, scientists have come to realize the enormous wealth of manpower available to science by using volunteers. You can be an amateur bird watcher and contribute to the knowledge of the American Ornithologist Union. Or you can help track anything from bees to killer whales. You can count moths or collect microbes in your own home - all as a “citizen scientist.”
When you check the list of possibilities, it is hard not to get excited about the contribution you can make to science by doing what you already enjoy doing, simply by signing up as a volunteer and making your actions count. Thanks to mobile phones, for instance, you can help to improve accuracy of magnetic navigation systems. Sounds impressive, right? All you need to do is download the app and send in your magnetic data.
You can turn your daily stroll along the shore into scientific research by listening for orcas and submitting your findings to The Whale Museum on Washington’s San Juan Island.
Being a volunteer scientist is not restricted to your regular daily life at home either. Tens of thousands of people in The Netherlands, for instance, contribute to the preservation of wildlife or natural areas by tagging butterflies, by constructing bee-houses or by planting trees. One website offers to pay all transportation and accommodation if you want to spend four days planting sea grass in the muddy tidal flats of northern Holland or Germany. You can also spend two weeks living in a lighthouse, in complete isolation and surrounded by the sea at high tide, counting seals and taking an inventory of sea birds. You just sign up as a volunteer caretaker for the Dutch National Nature Conservancy (Staatsbosbeheer).
If you’d rather go on night patrol on a Costa Rican beach, you can do so by joining a GoAbroad.com project to protect sea turtles. The Earthwatch Institute has also realized the enormous potential of using keen citizens to contribute to scientific research. They invite you to explore Nicaragua’s geology. You’ll be setting up high-tech scientific instruments in and around the Masaya’s crater. You’ll hike through the forest to record information on pollinating insects and to collect plant, water, and soil samples. You’ll be part of a field research team which may make this a more memorable holiday then simply lying on a beach. Of course, in a case like this, you’ll pay your own travel and accommodation.
Whether you use your daily stroll or dedicate your entire holiday to science, doing something meaningful for the environment will, no doubt, be a rewarding experience if you become a citizen scientist.
For previous Sci/Why columns on citizen science projects, just type "citizen science" into the Search box on the right side of this page.
All photos by Margriet Ruurs.