New Year – the perfect time for new plans and resolutions. If you’re looking for a way to make a difference in 2018 then why not consider becoming a citizen scientist and contributing to some of the biggest and most exciting scientific studies happening today? In this post we will take a look at the history of citizen science before providing you with a great list of projects that you can get involved in and a selection of books to inspire you.
Citizen science is a term used to describe any research that is conducted either wholly or in part by non-professionals. (I hesitate here to use the term “amateur” as this brings to mind individuals that are either unskilled or who are beginners in their field which, in many cases, couldn’t be further from the truth). Such projects are usually organised and managed by a professional research body or charity and areas of study can encompass anything from biology, physics and history to social sciences and technology.
The term “citizen science” was first used in the mid-1990s. However, the concept of everyday non-professionals conducting science on their own terms is by no means a recent phenomenon. For example, Gregor Mendel, who provided much of the foundation for our modern understanding of genetics, was actually an Augustinian monk for most of his life. Susan Hendrickson who discovered the largest complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex dropped out of high school to pursue her passion for specimen collecting. And even Charles Darwin initially went to university to study medicine before transferring to a Bachelor of Arts degree in the hopes that he would become a country parson.
The urge to pursue the study of something, whether that be dinosaur bones or the theory of evolution, is not always associated with financial recompense and, in fact, this leads to one of the biggest benefits of modern citizen science projects: the ability to conduct studies on a scale many times larger than would ordinarily be viable. This is because most research projects, particularly those in the natural sciences, generate a huge amount of fieldwork and data. The time taken to collect and process this, as well as the cost incurred by employing people to do the work, can make them prohibitively expensive. Employing an army of citizen scientists who are willing to work for free solves both problems very nicely. The benefits are by no means one-sided however. Inspiring and educating those that get involved and the provision of vital public outreach are both incredibly important, and the psychological benefits of volunteering have long been documented.
With the advent of the internet and a whole host of new technologies which make it easier than ever to communicate and share data, it is no wonder that citizen science has exploded in such a big way over the past two decades. Nationwide surveys such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count are now incredibly well-publicised and attract 1000s of volunteers. They provide just two excellent examples of how a country full of keen amateur naturalists can work together to expand the body of knowledge about our best-loved wildlife.
And it’s not just wildlife-lovers that are taking up the mantle of pioneering research. Projects such as I Like Clean Air, founded in Hackney, shows how everyday people can take their health and environment into their own hands, and collect the data they need to promote change in the places they live. Through their Be a Martian project, NASA are enlisting the help of people all over the world to analyse the data accumulated by their Mars exploration spacecraft and rovers. Even within the NHS, patient-led projects are a prime example of how people from all backgrounds can use their own knowledge and personal experiences to further science and understanding.
So, if you’re looking for a project to get involved in, keep reading for a list of wildlife and environment-related citizen science studies that you can take part in this year. Some of them might require a bit of legwork – perhaps you will need to go for a walk (or several walks) to record what you see. Others can be accomplished easily from a window looking out into your garden and a few can even be done online.
This list by no means covers all of the options out there so, if there’s nothing here that takes your fancy, get in touch with your local Wildlife Trust or search the internet to find out what’s going on near you.
- Nature’s Calendar – The Woodland Trust
Help to track the effects of weather and climate change by recording the happenings of the plants, animals and fungi where you live.
- Bioblitz – Various
A Bioblitz is an intense period of studying all of the wildlife within an area over a short period of time. Hosted by lots of different organisations and individuals, they occur throughout the year.
- Big Garden Birdwatch – RSPB
Observe and record the birds in your garden over one weekend and help the RSPB identify the distribution and abundance of our favourite garden visitors.
- Big Butterfly Count – Butterfly Conservation
Contribute to the world’s largest survey of butterflies and day flying moths and provide vital data which will help scientists understand how climate change is affecting our local wildlife.
- National Whale and Dolphin Watch – Sea Watch Foundation
The data collected during this annual event helps towards understanding and protecting cetaceans around the UK. Take part in an organised event or, if you have some experience, conduct your own watch.
- The Great British Wildflower Hunt – Plantlife
Record the wildflowers you see in your garden or when out walking, and help Plantlife to gather information on how wild plants are faring in our wild (and not so wild) spaces.
- National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
Record individual sightings of amphibians and reptiles or take part in a longer-term monitoring project by revisiting a sample site several times a year.
- The National Mammal Atlas Project – The Mammal Society
Submit your sightings of mammals using the online recording forms or via the handy Mammal Tracker App.
- Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum runs a range of citizen science projects, some of which can be completed online. Their website also includes lots of useful information on setting up your own project, running a Bioblitz, and even creating a website for your own recording scheme.
On the Zooniverse website you can participate in research of all kinds. As well as biology projects, there are others relating to history, literature, social science and much more.
Bradt Complete Guide to Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering
This comprehensive guide includes information on long- and short-term volunteering opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, from gap-year students to retirees. A must read for anyone wanting to contribute to wildlife conservation around the world.
The BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch Book
This enthralling book will provide you with information on how feeding our garden birds is affecting their survival, and will also encourage you to take part in the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual survey is the largest monitoring scheme of its type in the world and is vital to our understanding of our garden birds and the factors affecting their survival.
BTCV Practical Handbooks
This series of practical guides aims to help individuals and groups of volunteers undertake practical conservation work. Covering a wide range of topics, such as dry stone walling, tree planting and toolcare, each book is illustrated and clearly laid out in a step-by-step format.
The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science
While not a primer on the prescribed protocols of citizen science, this book combines vivid natural history, a deep sense of place, and reflection about our changing world. Musing on the expanding potential of citizen science, particularly in the US, the author celebrates today’s renewed volunteerism.