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  • Citizen scientists an untapped resource

Volunteer citizen scientists are an important resource — particularly for developing countries, argue Nigel Winser and Raghu Saxena.

Time and again, 'citizen scientists' — members of the public who voluntarily help scientific studies — have made a real difference to research, for example by meticulously collecting data.

With a well planned project, a list of tasks suitable for untrained people, and a strong leader who can ensure that volunteers are productive, citizen science can work.

On the Kenya coast, Mark Huxham, from Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and James Kairo, from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, have been working alongside citizen scientists since 2004.

Volunteers plant mangrove seedlings on two beach sites and monitor the effects of the plantations on beach erosion and on biodiversity, particularly among crabs and fish. This collaboration, which involves the local community of Gazi Bay in Kwale district, has helped to restore important mangrove ecosystems.

And James Crabbe, from the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, has been working with volunteers on a coral recovery project in Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve in the Caribbean.

″With the right project design, ordinary people can make major contributions to science. The public can help with taking measurements in the field, and provide pairs of hands,″ he says.

″On my projects, volunteers have not only helped to gather data that otherwise would not be obtainable, but also helped in data analysis.″

Data collection for the environment

In biodiversity-rich countries such as India — custodian of some of the world's key ecosystems, habitats and species — citizen science promises to bring new hope in the struggle to protect biodiversity. The future of the environmental conservation movement in the country rests in the hands of young people, which India has one of the world's largest populations.

Citizen science has the potential to bring youth and science together at the field level and empower them with knowledge, understanding and conviction to build conservation movements at the local level.

India, of course, is known its rich traditions and local knowledge practices. Ancient knowledge has contributed to many different fields, including healthcare, agriculture and the environment. In this rapidly changing world and in an era of global climate change, such knowledge systems need to be integrated with scientific understanding to tackle new environmental challenges. 

Creating and developing an effective citizen science model that fosters partnership between people, science and scientists will be a significant step towards this end.

This is because scientists do not always have the resources to tackle the environmental challenges facing our planet, particularly when research projects rely on long-term monitoring. It can be years before a project yields results that help conservation management. After the initial collection of baseline data, additional, comparative data need to be built up. In these long-term scenarios, volunteers provide a lifeline.

The added value of citizen science

Our organisation, Earthwatch, has shown that this approach works. Since 1971, some 85,000 people have joined our research projects as volunteer field assistants. Some volunteers contribute financially for the opportunity; others are funded by grants and bursaries. All work in small groups, overseen by scientific experts, and make a valuable contribution to the collection of data. Without such dedication, much long-term research and the results it generates would be impossible.

The value of these volunteers extends beyond data collection. Earthwatch scientists find that they generate enthusiasm and offer a fresh perspective on research projects. Technological skills — in information technology, for example — can be particularly useful.

For many volunteers, joining a research project can be a life-changing experience, a wake-up call to the environmental challenges facing the planet. The knowledge, inspiration and insight they take back to their own communities could ripple through the lives and attitudes of those around them for years to come.

The time is right for developing countries to recognise the importance of the citizen science concept, as the human threat to species and habitats is increasing.

Why would we not involve ordinary people in protecting our planet? The contribution of the individual should never be underestimated. As India's 'father of the nation', Mahatma Gandhi, wisely said, ″Be the change you want to see in the world″.

Nigel Winser is executive director of the environmental charity Earthwatch (Europe). Raghu Saxena is Earthwatch's country director for India.