Citizen Scientists Are Filling Research Gaps Created by the Pandemic

Yves here. I feel as if I am stepping on Lambert’s toes a bit, since he’s a big fan of citizen science. But this post is a good example of how some initiatives are adapting to Live Under Covid, and it gives a list of organizations that are seeking more volunteer help. Readers might be able to add to that list. It’s hard to find ways to enlist the help of what amounts to highly distributed workers without specifying their tasks to such a degree as to be demotivating, so the more successful programs may also have well-thought-out project management.

By Theresa Crimmins, Director, USA National Phenology Network, University of Arizona, Erin Posthumus, Outreach Coordinator and Liaison to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, University of Arizona, and Kathleen Prudic, Assistant Professor of Citizen and Data Science, University of Arizona. Originally published at The Conversation

The rapid spread of COVID-19 in 2020 disrupted field research and environmental monitoring efforts worldwide. Travel restrictions and social distancing forced scientists to cancel studies or pause their work for months. These limits measurably reduced the accuracy of weather forecasts and created data gaps on issues ranging from bird migration to civil rights in U.S. public schools.

Our work relies on this kind of information to track seasonal events in nature and understand how climate change is affecting them. We also recruit and train citizens for community science – projects that involve amateur or volunteer scientists in scientific research, also known as citizen science. This often involves collecting observations of phenomena such as plants and animals, daily rainfall totals, water quality or asteroids.

Participation in many community science programs has skyrocketed during COVID-19 lockdowns, with some programs reporting record numbers of contributors. We believe these efforts can help to offset data losses from the shutdown of formal monitoring activities.

Nature’s Notebook is a community-based science project that invites participants to track seasonal changes in plants and animals.

Why Is Uninterrupted Monitoring Important?

Regular, long-term tracking of phenomena such as plant and animal abundance, composition and activity is critical for understanding change. It enables researchers to see the impacts of natural disturbance events, such as wildfires, and human activities, such as construction and development. Long-term studies offer insights into patterns and processes that can’t be derived from shorter studies, and help experts make better predictions about the future.

Interruptions in monitoring make it harder to accurately assess changes. If those disruptions coincide with extreme events, such as a major hurricane, experts miss opportunities to understand the full impacts of those events.

A researcher takes water samples at the Coweeta Long-Term Ecological Research site in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. U.S. LTER

The U.S. has several long-term ecological monitoring programs, including the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the Long Term Ecological Research Network and federal inventory and monitoring programs. Many state and local government agencies carry out similar activities. The pandemic has significantly disrupted all of these programs.

Reasons to Engage the Public in Science

Community science is a strong complement to formal research. By engaging willing volunteers, community programs yield much more data and cover larger areas than professional scientists can achieve on their own.

We help manage two popular biodiversity-themed community science programs in the U.S.: eButterfly, a program for tracking butterfly sightings, and Nature’s Notebook, a program for tracking seasonal activity in plants and animals. Scientists have used data contributed by participants in these programs to verify information collected by satellites, determine the conditions associated with flowering in different species of plants, and predict how climate change will shift plant species’ ranges in the future.

Observations contributed to other community science programs have helped to document new insect species, discover exoplanetsand even find cures for rare diseases. Globally, millions of peopleparticipate in thousands of projects, resulting in data valued at more than US$1 billion annually.



Community science programs also benefit participants. Joining a community science program can make people more science-literate and help pull back the curtain on how scientific work is done. It also deepens their sense of place and increases their understanding and appreciation for the plants and animals they monitor. We have frequently heard from our participants that making observations has enabled them to see and experience much more in places they know well, and to enjoy those places all the more.

Community Science to the Rescue

As offices and schools closed in the spring of 2020, many Americans turned to community science programs in search of stimulating and meaningful activities for children and adultsalike. And despite COVID-19 restrictions, volunteer data collectors have persisted through the pandemic.

In a recent analysis of activity in biodiversity-themed community science programs during COVID-19 lockdowns, we found that participation generally held steady or increased in the spring of 2020. Two popular programs, iNaturalist and eBird, both grew. Participation in Nature’s Notebook and eButterfly declined slightly, though volunteers still logged many critical observations. What’s more, community science volunteers in these programs and others have kept at it even as lockdowns have relaxed.

Plant ecologist Chad Washburn explains how the Naples Botanical Garden in Florida uses citizen science research to study plant distribution, flowering times and range.

How Good Is Community Data?

One common question about community science projects is whether data collected by volunteers is reliable. This is a valid concern, since many program participants are not formally trained as scientists.

Organizations that run community science programs typically go to great lengths to ensure data quality. To avoid recording erroneous observations, project leaders provide extensive training and support materials. They also construct data entry apps so that volunteers can’t mistakenly input dates in the future, and flag inconsistent reports for review. Several biodiversity-themed programs, including iNaturalist, eBird and eButterfly, engage expert reviewers to evaluate and verify reports.

According to a 2018 review by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, on average, volunteer contributors yield reliable data points about 75% of the time. For some programs, such as Nature’s Notebook and eBird, accuracy is over 90%.

SciStarter is a database that volunteers can use to find community science opportunities across the U.S. throughout the year.

How To Get Involved

Your observations can help fill critical gaps that COVID-19 closures have created. Contributions to iNaturalist, eBird, eButterfly or Nature’s Notebook are welcome any time of the year, but spring is an ideal time to contribute observations to biodiversity-themed programs to help document plant and animal response to changing seasonal conditions. For example, participants in Nature’s Notebook will help document whether springtime plant and animal activity is early amid the ongoing effects of climate change.

The 2021 City Nature Challenge, an effort using iNaturalist to document urban biodiversity in brief, focused events, will run in late April and early May in cities worldwide. Another event, Global Big Day – a single day focused on celebrating and recording birds worldwide – is scheduled for May 8. Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a scientist, you can help scientists collect data that expand our understanding of the Earth and how it works.

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  1. Phacops

    Michigan has a great program, MiCorps (Michigan Clean Water Corps), that uses CS to collect data on stream quality. Twice a year my local Conservation District get out on three streams collecting macroinvertebrates. Later, we will identify to the family level, assign a score depending on how sensitive to poor water and habitat conditions, they are. I am priveleged to live in an area with good to excellent stream quality. Having some children on a collecting team is a hoot, with their enthusiasm.

    Getting children interested in and doing Citizen Science and I’ll bet they will develop a reasonable idea of what Science is.

  2. grayslady

    I have been a member of ebird since the beginning and also, going back to the 1990s, a member of Journey North (originally hummingbirds only, but now other species also).

  3. Kevin Carhart

    It’s good, but I think caution is warranted towards “open science”. Maybe it is being differentiated from citizen science, but I suspect this is just the vagaries of who means what by which, and they’re seen as synonymous. (As a fast proxy, I searched the NC archives. 22 results for os and 60 results for cs. Are they seen as roughly the same thing?)
    Here’s the relevant Mirowski talk…please leap to the 55:00 mark for the science- the first half is about fake news.

    The research process is being carved into pieces. You deskill some, you automate others. The component processes are then tackled by a cluster of startups. (Who decides that a cluster of founders will want to build companies around a piece of something like a piece of the science process at a given moment in time? Is this a spontaneous competitive order or do the funders and potential acquirors steer it?)

    When a winner emerges, it will already have been battle-ratified and can be acquired by one of the big tech monopolies. The goal is to expose more of the organization of science to markets and neoliberal convictions, to kill tenure and prof caprice. And, to enlist the help of highly distributed workers where appropriate, similar to the obvious names, the precarious-work platform ghouls and their financiers.

    Jeremy, at least, has picked up some of this in the past with open access to papers:

    This article has a nice feel as though it’s nothing to do with the open science 2.0, But on the other hand, startup people have no problem cold-bloodedly employing misleading aesthetics and framing. In my past experience with The Conversation, I think they’re a bit sinister. What have they run on geoengineering, for instance?

    Is ornithology and certain types of science just a different animal? Nothing to worry about?

    1. Stephen the tech critic

      Citizen science is not the same as open access publishing which is not the same as the nightmare you describe. (Should we call it “startup-ism”?) And for what it’s worth, that nightmare is very real and the shifts have been underway for a while. All this has occurred through the existing institutions and despite the fact that much research remains pay-walled.

      I don’t doubt some Silicon Valley people want to crush the publishing industry monopolists because they think they can run the grift better themselves, but just because open access publishing is part of someone’s sinister plan does not mean that open access publishing is inherently sinister. What if libraries organized and funded development and maintenance of the open access platforms using money they save by not being ripped off by publishers? Of course the real issue is that the MBA university admins will claim that savings for their own more “noble” aspirations. Everybody knows Google does information technology better than a bunch of luddite librarians—why else would they have such high market value? [/sarc]

      But anyway this article is about citizen science, not open access publishing. IMO, citizen science is an essential *antidote* to the neoliberalizaton of science. Among many other positives, it hedges against the risk of institutional decline and failure. I believe it can also help restore trust by building relationships between experts and laypeople.

      1. Jason

        The article does include this neoliberal gem:

        Globally, millions of people participate in thousands of projects, resulting in data valued at more than US$1 billion annually.

        That’s not to say I’m against citizen science, of course. I just wish something in this godforsaken world could be done without any reference whatsoever to its freaking “value” in financial terms.

        Rant over.

        P.S. I’m sick of hearing about “data” too. Enough already. Data has it’s place, obviously, but reducing all of life to data is…well, obviously.

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