Volunteers for Science

Illustration: Teresa Hall
Illustration: Teresa Hall

I get to call myself a scientist because I’ve got a Ph.D. in oceanography, but is that a prerequisite? No. Before there were “scientists,” even “ordinary people” did science. They learned to grow crops and domesticate animals. They associated the heavens with the seasons and events on Earth. Keen insight into plant properties, animal behavior and weather patterns is what gave early Homo sapiens the evolutionary edge in a dangerous world. Today, we call this native environmental acuity “traditional ecological knowledge.” It’s citizen science at its most fundamental.

In Oregon and across the continent, citizens contribute immeasurably to the scientific process. Bird watchers document changes in the abundance and range of bird species through the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Amateur astronomers working from their backyards discover comets and supernovae. School children analyze streams, lakes and coastal waters, learning fundamental scientific principles as they provide valuable data to their communities.

Strength in Numbers

Oregon State University master naturalist volunteers Anne Marie Farell-Matthews and Philip Matthews cut open sacks of native Olympia oysters and spread them on a muddy flat during low tide at Oregon's South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve near Charleston. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

But there’s a worrisome wrinkle, the uncertain mash-up of amateur enthusiasm with demands for analytical rigor. Science operates through four basic steps: expression of an hypothesis, controlled experimentation, analysis of results and statement of defensible conclusions. Citizens participate in this process by making observations and sometimes helping with experiments. But designing those projects and interpreting their results takes strict adherence to established methods and time-tested procedures. That’s what gives conclusions their validity and allows scientists to broaden understanding.

Nevertheless, a vast pool of data gatherers can be a boon to researchers doing large-scale studies. Increasingly, scientists and research organizations are enlisting and training regular folks. Citizens are measuring rainfall, counting insects and monitoring the annual life-cycles of plants. For these kinds of studies, there’s no way that scientists can collect the mountains of data that tens of thousands of binocular-wielding volunteers can capture in a single day.

Oregon State’s newly launched Oregon Master Naturalist program (see “Corps of Discovery“) represents another type of citizen science, one that centers on education and outreach. People with a bent for exploration and a love of their local environment are meeting in person with scientists, usually university researchers, to learn about their own ecoregions. After 80-plus hours of training that takes place online, in the classroom and outdoors, these Master Naturalists are ready to extend their knowledge to the broader public as volunteers with local nonprofits and state agencies. Oregon’s is one of about 40 similar programs nationwide.

Mary Crow leads a hike at Rimrock Ranch for the Deschutes Land Trust. (Photo: Lynn Kethcum)
Mary Crow leads a hike at Rimrock Ranch for the Deschutes Land Trust. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Also, to the non-scientific observer, research often verges on the edge of being esoteric, so the citizen scientist can be an important link between the specialist in the field and the public. The urgent scientific challenges of our day require not only informed decision-makers but also a mobilized citizenry. Scientists use rigorous methods to conduct experiments, but their findings alone will not solve problems or shape policy. State and national agencies, city planners, county commissioners, lawmakers at every level of government and, ultimately, voters will decide whether and how to act upon the science.

That may be the most powerful promise of citizen science. A citizenry that is not only scientifically sophisticated but also personally committed is our best hope for collective action on behalf of a healthy planet.