National Science Foundation Informs the Media about Citizen Science

October 1st, 2012

Participation in citizen science programs has the potential to increase science literacy and interest among a variety of public audiences and enhance scientific research through the wide-scale collection of data, says the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In a recent media brief and webcast the NSF recognized how a growing number of citizen science projects have the opportunity to address societal problems. The webcast was sparked by two “firsts” in the world of citizen science—a special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, published by the Ecological Society of America (ESA), and the first conference on Public Participation in Science Research on August 4-5 in Portland, OR. Read on to find out more about the NSF’s interest in citizen science and how you can get involved.

Like a coming tsunami

Citizen science activity has exploded over the last ten years, said David Hanych, NSF Program Director in the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program (formerly known as Informal Science Education [ISE]). Hanych characterized this as a “coming tsunami,” in which more projects are coming online, and older projects are being scaled up. The origins of citizen science can be traced back a century-and-a-half, to the mid-1800s, when the Smithsonian Institution first established networks of volunteers to report local weather observations via telegraph. More recently, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has had an important leadership role in this domain. Rick Bonney, Director of Program Development and Evaluation at the Lab oversaw the writing of a CAISE PPSR Inquiry Group report in 2009 and recently co-authored the paper, Public participation in scientific research: a framework for deliberate design, published in the Ecology and Society journal.

Speaking during the webcast, Hanych partially attributes the growth in citizen science projects during recent years to advances in technology. The Internet, mobile technologies, and social media have dramatically increased access and made collecting and reporting data easier. The nature and scale of today’s science and education challenges, and focus on citizen science by funding agencies, have attracted both science researchers seeking new ways to collect data and informal learning professionals seeking meaningful ways to involve public audiences in the science enterprise.

Advancing Informal STEM Learning program (AISL). About $4 million per year in AISL funding has been associated with citizen science project work, and Hanych, who managed the proposal process on many of these projects, shared expectations that the NSF will continue to provide such a level of support for citizen science.

What kinds of research can be done through citizen science?

Sandra Henderson, Director of Citizen Science at the NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) in Boulder, CO, explained that citizen science spans a wide range of scientific disciplines, and can involve varying levels of participation. Henderson highlighted her own citizen science network, Project BudBurst, which collects important ecological data based on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants as the seasons change. Project BudBurst participants – students, scouts, seniors, backyard naturalists, gardeners, hikers, professional botanists and ecologists, and visitors to botanical gardens, wildlife refuges, and U.S. National Parks – make careful observations and provide data collected in a consistent manner across the country so that scientists can use it to learn more about the responsiveness of individual plant species to changes in climate locally, regionally, and nationally.

Henderson also discussed the NSF-funded Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), which enlists thousands of volunteers across the United States and Canada to measure and report rain, hail, and snow falls in their communities. (for more about CoCoRaHS see the Project Spotlight). The National Weather Service, municipal governments, and even organizations looking to control mosquito populations have used CoCoRaHS data. Citizen science programs can collect information from a wide geographic and temporal swath, then that data may be shared with other researchers in a public database and used in the future to measure change over time. These public databases and the process of contributing to them are sometimes described as “big data.”

Citizen science, an “authentic experience?”

Although citizen science projects have been trending towards “authentic experiences” for volunteers, there remains a tension between how those participants may be actively contributing to scientific research versus serving as “data mules” for the research scientist. Different projects may be designed to address a range of needs such as those of the researcher or the educator/student, but a good citizen science project will benefit both. There is evidence that citizen science programs advance the public understanding of science and influence public attitudes about scientific issues.

Regarding the mutual benefits of citizen science, Hanych said that the NSF is particularly interested in funding projects in which the data is useful for scientists and researchers. The ability to contribute to scientific advances is often a high motivator for participants in these kinds of projects, and science researchers should be genuine about how the data is going to be used e.g. if scientists promise a publication submission with the data, they should follow through, and allow participants to access the results.

Hanych credited highly motivated audiences’ participation in citizen science for having potential benefits to the “STEM pipeline” — the flow of students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) — that begins in elementary school. High-quality citizen science involves students of all ages and lifelong learners in real science research that has the potential to spark curiosity and the desire to further explore STEM. In one example, a representative from the CoCoRaHS project dialed into the webcast to inform listeners that one of their early student volunteers has gone on to be a meteorologist. Hanych also pointed out that because citizen science can be done anywhere, projects have the potential to “represent America” by engaging underserved audiences from across the country and partnering with community leaders to expand the pool of participating volunteers.

These kinds of results will only be increased and enhanced by building on prior work in the development of accessible, engaging experiences. Currently, the NSF is looking for ways to define what makes a “good” citizen science project through evaluations and research. By measuring changes in skills, knowledge, and behavior of participants in these kinds of programs, learning researchers can define outcomes and impacts that quality citizen science projects produce. For those interested in finding evaluations, case studies, and research documentation on citizen science projects, the Informal Commons offers a search engine that may be used to help navigate a wealth of information on those topics.

The NSF funds many citizen science projects through the AISL program (formerly the Informal Science Education, or ISE, program). Researchers and practitioners interested in citizen science projects may consider applying for the next round of AISL funding. Proposals are due January 15, 2013. CAISE has a variety of materials that can help applicants build a successful proposal available on our Resources page.