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Citizen science sees results

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Wild Flowers

MeadoWatch volunteer Bill Goforth at work.

In the humid basement of Hitchcock Hall, ordinary people can be found hunched over microscopes, surrounded by yellowed copies of The Daily. At first glance, it almost appears as if they are working in a newsroom and not a seed vault.

Upon closer examination it becomes evident the papers are merely a placeholder for the preserved plants that lie pressed between them. On the walls, worn maps of the Pacific Northwest are stuck with pins to remember the diverse origins of the now flattened flora being examined.  

Over the shoulder of herbarium volunteer Berl Nussbaum, the work is meticulous. Carefully identifying each plant takes time and depending on what it is, skill.

“I consider it enlightened self interest,” Nussbaum said of his work. “If you’re compulsive about trying to classify something and you’re not good at it, it’s not relaxing.” 

Nussbaum is one small part of citizen science, a method of data collecting that is becoming increasingly common in the research community. Over the past two decades, these programs aim to stretch beyond the traditional scientific method by employing non-professionals to do research, utilizing the Northwest’s vast human resources to solve problems on a scale larger than ever before.


Turning adventure into data

The most common programs directly interact with their environment, pushing volunteers to look critically at the world around them. From projects that require little to no training, to those that select its participants from a pool of acquired knowledge, it’s becoming increasingly easy to contribute to science without a Ph.D.

On one end of the spectrum are those like UW-based Rare Care, Foldit, and Community Snow Observations (CSO) which give volunteers the tools to independently collect data and report back.

“We have a good amount of contributions from our citizen scientists that are going out every time they’re recreating in the backcountry,” CSO Principal Investigator Anthony Arendt said. “We’re encouraging them to take snow depth observations which are coming in through the smartphone app to our servers here.”

On the other end are less individual endeavors like the wildflower documenting MeadoWatch and the seasonal survey of the Burke’s Herbarium where participants are taken on pre-planned data collecting trips.

In between lies the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) — a hybrid of the two that provides thorough trainings to its volunteers who comb the the Northwest’s coastlines for dead seabirds to inform population health studies. 

“We’re at the point where we’re limited in how many people we can take,” MeadoWatch Director Janneke Hille Ris Lambers said.


Joining the flock

COASST’s highly decorated corner of the Fishery Sciences Building is a model for one of the most well established citizen science programs at the UW. Adorning the walls are charts showing the wealth of information their army of citizen scientists have brought back from the field. 

“I didn’t think about sustainability, I didn’t think about any of those things, I could not imagine there’d be 50 people in the world at the same time that would want to go survey beaches for dead birds,” COASST Executive Director Julia Parrish said. “It seemed so incredibly odd, but today we’ve trained somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 people.”

Those thousands of volunteers represent only a small fraction of the deeply communal web created by citizen science, both at the UW and around the world. But even as the number of volunteers grows, reachers speak passionately of their relationships with their workers.

“We certainly prioritize connections with volunteers over quantity,” Rare Care Program Manager Wendy Gibble said.

A big reason citizen science works is because of those relationships and the continued interest of the volunteers who are invested in the research goals.

“I like knowing what I’m seeing when I’m outdoors,” Burke Foray Participant Julia Bent said. “The trips take me to places of the Northwest I would never go otherwise and frankly when you’re out there it’s hard work.”

The programs give people who don’t necessarily want a career in science a direct opportunity to experience it.

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“It’s a science-based way of knowing, and you weave that into your identity and your life and science becomes a part of who you are,” Parrish said. “Which doesn’t make you a scientist but it makes you part of a science team.”


Twenty hands are better than two

For large-scale environmental surveys, there is often no way to collect enough data without the help of citizen scientists. They may not have the statistical know how to crunch the numbers back at the lab or sequence the DNA of a new plant species they found, but they can most certainly cover more ground than the lab researchers ever could. 

Many programs are partnered with local and national governmental organizations, providing valuable knowledge they would otherwise lack due to funding or staffing. MeadoWatch provides data about when Mount Ranier’s wildflowers bloom to park rangers so they can better plan for the influx of visitors.

“Mount Rainier gets a lot of visitors every year, there’s a big bulge that come to see the wildflowers,” Hille Ris Lambers said. “It varies a lot from year to year and it could be a lot earlier in the future with climate change.” 

As climate change becomes an increasingly public topic of discussion, these programs give citizens an opportunity to see the environmental effects first hand.

“It’s a way to get more people involved in science,” Hille Ris Lambers said. “In general I think that’s important for a couple different reasons, like science literacy and climate change impacts.” 

While the quality of the information itself is under scrutiny by those who mistrust the rigor of citizen data collectors, these programs help keep data current and bridge vast knowledge gaps. In the environmental community, things change fast and some information hasn’t been updated in decades.

“Now conservation decisions are being made with conservation data that’s not 40 years old,” Gibble said. “It’s been collected within the past five to ten years and that’s amazingly cool.”


Seeing results

Another challenge researchers face is finding a way to give back to the people who participate in citizen science, who are almost always unpaid volunteers. Most projects try to include volunteers in the end results.

“I think there is a responsibility, especially on the part of scientists and the academic community, to return information to them beyond saying thank you,” Parrish said.

To help understand this problem, many programs at the UW are beginning to coalesce into a community of practice which aims at targeting higher levels of engagement in the student body and beyond.

“Traditionally, people who were trained to be scientists developed a certain set of skills, [but] these are not necessarily the same set of skills that are required engaging the public in science,” COASST Science Coordinator Hillary Burgess said. “I think there’s a need for professional development and training opportunities for people and students who want to go public with it.”

The UW has already begun similar initiatives, such as the UW Planetarium’s outreach class to train volunteers who give free shows to the public. For scientists, the work is a valuable opportunity to give back to volunteers that make their research possible. 

“I just meet really interesting people; passionate, dedicated, generous people, and they’re my tribe; they all love plants,” Gibble said. “How many times can I walk out into a group of 100 people and find even one person who likes to geek out at plants?”

Arendt, who spends the majority of his time behind the scenes ensuring funding is available for his program, revels in the rare opportunity to participate.

“What’s cool about citizen science is you know, I was on vacation last week with my wife an we took some measurements and it was cool. I felt like I was doing some field work,” Arendt said. “It’s important for us to do that, it keeps us connected to the real world”


Reach reporter Samantha Bushman at Twitter: @sammi_bushman

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