Thursday, March 13, 2014

Citizen Science

It's that time of year again where my email box starts showing signs of spring. Citizen Science projects that I've participated in previously are asking for my continued support and data collection.

Citizen Science programs ask lay people to collect data in prescribed manners and return it the lead researcher. This data is used to create a far larger database of information than a single scientist or even research team can collect in a season.

I've collected data on for a number of different projects including Christmas Bird Counts, Great Backyard Bird Counts, Monarch Watch, Herp and Odenate Atlases, FireFly Watch and The Great Sunflower Project.

But is this really science?

In part this question comes from my desire to get more people doing science starting at an early age (see my other blog Messy Fingers). When we collect information on clouds, dog poo, or even honeybees, are we really doing science?

Science at its heart is both a verb and a noun. The collecting or describing of lots of stuff or data is really just science as a noun. Citizens are merely collecting bits of information that are fed to someone else. Citizens are not analyzing the information or designing the experiment. Citizens might see themselves as working as scientists, but they don't generally collaborate with the scientists on the structure of a scientific inquiry or the analysis of the data. Perhaps, a citizen scientist may get to watch a presentation of the project they collected data for but they won't be presenting the information themselves.

So, what part is science?

In my mind, none. But don't for a second think that I don't support citizen science in every crazy, tangled, gorgeous way.

Citizen science gets regular folks thinking about science. Curiosity is fed and conversations started. This can lead some citizens to make deeper inquiries and ask richer questions about how data is used, analyzed, and shared. And that is worth the misconception.

So what am I going to do this summer?  I am continuing my role in Firefly Watch, The Great Sunflower Project, and I am going to join in the Lost Ladybug Project. Honestly who doesn't like to catch fireflies on a warm summer night right before bed?

If you want to add data to a project here are a few clearing houses of projects:
Citizen Science Alliance - astronomy and climate projects
Cornell Bird Lab - well bird related projects and great ones for kids
National Wildlife Federation - nature related projects for kids
wikipedia - lists a variety of projects but can be overwhelming so use this if you know what sort of project you want or can't find something anywhere else

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