Isn’t that just volunteer work?

By Alex Gustafson

Picture this. You are walking along one of the beaches of the Pacific Northwest. The sand is damp and there’s a drizzle falling. Waves break and the tang of salt water washes through your nostrils. You aren’t alone, you are with others walking just as mindfully as you. You are tracking, recording, and collecting data for the rigorous and respected COASST survey that uses the skills and expertise of coastal citizens to monitor beachcast birds, marine debris and other evidence of human influence.

I had the chance to speak with Julia Parrish, Executive Director of COASST, Associate Dean of the College on the Environment at the University of Washington and also Professor within the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences. I sought her insight for the keys to a successful citizen science project and she emphasized the importance of a “strong sense of the question” coupled with creativity in data collection. A concrete grasp of the issue, paired with some creative design: just the recipe for a Citizen Science Project.

Jason Toft, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences focuses primarily on Puget Sound nearshore restoration and juvenile salmon estuarine interactions, echoed a same sentiment. Citizen science projects need to contain well designed procedures and thorough planning but those plans must maintain flexibility. Toft describes a “treasure trove” which lies within the potential contribution of citizen science. The “bulk” of data that can be collected with the person power of volunteers can prove to be useful by a range of universities and agencies, something Toft would like to see as an evolutionary path for citizen science. Both interviewees described the approach to citizen science to be that of a “team sport,” which I first saw coined by COASST.  

Reservations about the wider perception of citizen science were shared by both interviewees. I quote Parrish who believes citizen science programs should adopt “a no whining realization that mainstream science will require proof of quality over and above what it requires of itself.” A stigmatized view from the scientific community is also a concern shared by Toft. The data can often be thought of as poor quality, and therefore remain mostly unused in cyberspace.

With no intent of irony, I sought out the scientific community. The last 30 years have seen a steeply increasing trend of “biodiversity-oriented citizen science projects” (Theobald et al.). Together 388 global studies on biodiversity are economically worth $667 million to $2.5 billion in volunteered time annually, equivalent to 11-42% of the National Science Foundation’s budget (Theobald et al.). To come full circle, Julia Parrish was a co-author on this article.

Citizen science still is at the mercy of an “image problem” (Riesch and Potter). Scientists may, in fact, want to include data from citizen science studies but are concerned about how it will be perceived and received by fellow members of the scientific community. Relinquishing scientific discovery to laymen can be worrisome. At the chance of making this argument melodramatic, “if we overlook the problems faced by scientists with persuading the wider scientific community of the validity of CS work then we fail the scientists who are potentially putting their careers on the line when they sign up to participate in” (Riesch and Potter); it’s an important point. Thus, one secret to seeing citizen science used more broadly lies within the acceptance scientific community.

Photo Credit: Alex Gustafson

A team mentality is what could change these perceptions. Science needs more than a few excellent players; it needs what every team needs: cooperation, great teammates and a great staff. Toft suggested that citizen science can persevere to “produce datasets with broad spatial and temporal scales [that otherwise could] be constrained by funding limitations, overturning of personnel, and program changes”. Adding citizens to the roster doesn’t change all that much when acknowledging science takes a team of varying responsibilities, according to Parrish.

Research has aspirations of flawlessness. The reality, however, is that it is not. Some methods acquire more uncertainty than others; once those are acknowledged we move forward to understand what new perspective the study has to offer. As if a case of serendipity struck, NPR aired a piece on how Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, funded by NASA, is seeking volunteers to pour over images from NASA’ s  Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission in search of the elusive 9th planet from the Sun. So, hey, if finding the 9th planet is going to be crowdsourced, I think trained and devoted data collectors have potential.

Acknowledgements: I would like to extend a large thank you to Jason Toft and Julia Parrish for the time and consideration they took in answering my interview questions. Your extra time is not plentiful, but I appreciate you finding this worth your while and respecting my journalism pursuits.

References: Riesch, Hauke, and Clive Potter. “Citizen Science as Seen by Scientists: Methodological, Epistemological and Ethical Dimensions.” Public Understanding of Science 23.1 (2014): 107-20. Web.

Theobald, Ettinger, Burgess, Debey, Schmidt, Froehlich, Wagner, Hillerislambers, Tewksbury, Harsch, and Parrish. “Global Change and Local Solutions: Tapping the Unrealized Potential of Citizen Science for Biodiversity Research.” Biological Conservation 181 (2015): 236-44. Web.