Citizen science: Britain's success story

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

A report in Britain has commended more than 200 citizen science projects across the country as a successful way to gather useful information about the environment. It's a model for how Canada could fill the gap left by government cutbacks in environmental science.

The UK Environmental Observation Framework is a long-standing partnership between the major funders of environmental science, such as the government, and the Natural History Museum, along with amateur naturalist organizations. It was established in 2008 to deal with the problem faced by scientists of fragmented data and a lack of direction in strategic environmental monitoring. In other words, traditional science was not enough to track environmental changes, so they turned to the public for help. And it's working.

Their guidebook shows citizen groups how to organize public environmental projects that do more than plant trees or clean up creeks. These are projects that use the scientific method to gather observations of wildlife, habitat, pollution, bird populations, weather or whatever issues need to be addressed in an area. The public collects data, organizes it, shares it with professional scientists and communicates the results back to the community.

Since they were established, these citizen science projects have provided large amounts of useful data over wide areas that would have been difficult for environmental scientists to gather themselves. At the same time, it has provided an opportunity for like-minded people to share their passion for nature in a meaningful way, and for young people to learn about the environment outside of the classroom. That last point alone is worth the effort. So many young people learn about the environment by searching the internet, but never get their hands dirty or their feet wet.

These projects have been initiated either by citizen's groups, who see an environmental issue in their local area, or organized by scientists who need volunteers to gather data. In recent years, improved social networking has made it easier for disparate groups investigating similar issues to share and compare data. It's a win-win situation, where scientists get a fuller picture of what's happening in the field and the public gets involved in doing something about it.

In Canada, there are many naturalist groups across the country but no central citizen science organization to coordinate activities and gather data for the scientific community. This would be extremely useful, considering the size of our country and the fact that our government has cut back on environmental science, closed important monitoring stations and made it difficult for our scientists to even talk about their work. So, if the government won't keep an eye on the environment, why not do it ourselves?

People in communities are the best eyes on the environment because they see changes over time. How often have you noticed that the local creek isn't running as clear as it used to, that there's more junk washing up on the beach or that song birds don't seem to be as numerous as they once were?

Citizen science doesn't have to be a grand project, such as Earth Day, where everyone feels good by riding a bicycle to work once a year. In fact, smaller community-based projects, carried out over a longer period of time, are much more effective and represent the way science is actually done.

The first step is to create a central data gathering centre that would coordinate the activities, provide guidelines, assemble the data and become a link between the public and the scientific community. This could be done through the National Research Council, a science centre, museum or a university with a large environmental science program. Whatever the location, the centre would be a portal for the free flow of scientific information in both directions between the public and professionals.

Through organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Canada-Wide Science Fair, Let's Talk Science, Bird Studies Canada and countless other organizations in communities across the country, people can become engaged in the environment in a meaningful way.

In the UK, data from citizen science is provided to the government to develop policy. In Canada, many people are dissatisfied with environmental policy, but feel powerless to do something about it. Citizen science might be a way to change that.