It is common these days to read of research projects that are funded to the tune of millions or even tens of millions of dollars and are carried out by consortiums of prestigious universities and research labs. And it is very easy to conclude that there is no way the average citizen can any longer contribute to new science discoveries. But in fact, there are numerous projects in fields as diverse as astronomy, medical research and environmental sciences where “citizen scientists” still play an important role in gathering the necessary data to test hypotheses or verify what is happening in the real world.
In a way this harkens back to the beginnings of organized scientific inquiry in the 16th to 19th centuries when many of the important discoveries were made either by lay persons pursuing their hobbies, whether that meant bird watching, fossil collecting or gazing through a telescope at the stars and planets or by workers doing an unrelated job. An example of this is William Smith who started out as a surveyor laying out many of the canals that were being constructed across England in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. As he surveyed where the canals would go he noticed the various strata of rock and began to record his observations. Today he is known as the “Father of English Geology”. Admittedly an unusual case and most of us who participate in citizen science studies won’t end up being the “father of anything” but if you are interested you can contribute to on-going projects in diverse fields of study.
Astronomy is a good example of a modern field that has many very expensive pieces of equipment (extremely large telescopes) but where contributions continue to be made by back-yard amateurs. Every year at least one or two hitherto unknown comets or asteroids are discovered by amateurs. Partly this is because obtaining time on one of the really big telescopes is expensive and hard to come by. So many researchers want time on these telescopes that there is a large waiting list and if a scientist’s proposal is finally accepted he might only get 2 or 3 hours of ‘scope time. On the other hand, a dedicated amateur with his own back-yard scope and camera can spend hours every clear night observing the heavens.
Environmental science is another area where citizen scientists play an extremely important role, especially in the gathering of necessary field data. Around the world right now citizen scientists are involved in the study of coral reefs, the collection of weather data, tracking of invasive plant species and the study of bird populations to name only a few areas.
Here in the Okanagan Valley members of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club and others are involved in a number of on-going studies. This includes the WiTS program wherein citizen scientists monitor the use of “Wildlife Trees” by certain endangered species of birds. Others help out at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory written about in last month’s Nature Wise. Still others participate in the Christmas Bird Count and the BC Breeding Bird Atlas program. This latter program is an attempt to monitor the number of birds of all the species that breed in BC – indeed a major undertaking and one that would be impossible without the volunteer citizen scientists who gather most of the data.
Without the basic data gathered by these hundreds and thousands of citizen scientists in BC and around the world it would be impossible to adequately test many scientific hypotheses, to monitor endangered species or to determine whether programs underway are achieving their goals.