Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Invasive Plant Project
honeysuckle spreading out along the ground

Citizen science

Conservation education

A review of a newspaper such as the New York Times will show that information about the current crisis in biodiversity is available to public audiences, but there is little evidence that the public uses this information to make conservation oriented decisions. Indeed some people question whether or not the public has the intellectual tools to even understand the science based articles of the New York Times, let alone transfer ideas to personal behavior. This lack of understanding can lead to public detachment and a reliance on others to investigate scientific solutions for technical, health, and environmental problems.

In this climate of scientific disengagement within the United State’s citizenry (National Research Council (NRC) Report 1999), however, one wonders if available information is enough? Brewer in a 2001 Conservation Biology article maintained that conservation scientists taking a passive role in conservation education will not provide timely results. Brewer thus encourages the conservation science community to actively engage public audiences in an effort to translate scientific results.

Citizen Science

While many definitions of citizen science projects may exist, we employ a broad definition in which citizens and scientist engage in partnerships where data are collected and analyzed to meet project goals. Involvement in citizen science programs can promote scientific and conservation literacy. For example, in a large-scale study, Trumbull et al. (2000, Conservation Biology) found that 80% of its 700 participants engaged in scientific-inquiry related thinking while participating in a bird feeder study organized by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. When engaged in citizen science initiatives, individuals often find means to develop their understanding of the science that underlies the issue they seek to address. For example, Evans et al. (2005, Conservation Biology) noted increases in biological content knowledge and awareness of sense of place in most of their participants. At a minimum, however, by simply providing the observational tools necessary for participation, citizen science involvement usually results in increased awareness of scientific processes.

In addition with respect to environmental issues, research has shown citizen science initiatives can be successful in promoting civic engagement ; although many programs do not focus on engagement. For example, in a review of citizen science programs involving macro-invertebrate biological monitoring, Nerbonne and Nelson (2004) found several examples of programs that have successfully resulted in increased civic awareness, involvement in local resource issues, and the creation of scientific data sets. Because of this involvement, citizen groups have played a role in shaping environmental policy. This enhanced sense of efficacy is likely to translate into further environmental action-oriented behavior.

Despite the potential for mutual gains for both citizens and scientists, not all programs have enjoyed equal success in promoting an informed and active citizenry and scientific gains beyond what might have been accomplished by scientists alone. Programs need to be well managed and information packaged in a defined manner. Protocols for citizen participation need to be clearly defined. Data collection and management procedures should be endorsed by research professionals and overseen by a trained research professional.

Successful citizen science programs, such as Cornell University’s E-bird, have met with further success by tapping into existing environmental constituencies while emphasizing activities matching the skill sets and interests of their target groups. This strategy can provide several benefits. First, recruitment of citizen scientists is more efficient because solicitations are directed to an audience with a known proclivity toward the study topic. Second, training needs are reduced because participants share a higher foundation of knowledge in the subject. Similarly, these citizen scientists can be assigned more sophisticated tasks than would be possible for participants drawn from the general public.

Finally, as mentioned above, following a positive volunteer experience, these citizen scientists are likely to continue with their education and involvement in the topic area, as it is an extension of existing interests. Based on these successes we designed a study that would incorporate citizens as data collectors. A major objective in our invasive plant project was to determine whether participation in this project will translate into increased scientific understanding in terms of both content and process and whether participation resulted in increased motivation for behavioral change with regard to the spread of invasive species. 2