Science with, for and by the people
December 1900 marked the first ever ‘Christmas Bird Count’ in the US. Its aim was to get people counting bird species rather than killing them, and it’s now an annual tradition.
Every year on a specific day between December 14 and January 5, thousands of ordinary citizens gather together in more than 2,000 locations across the Western hemisphere to count birds. The data these volunteers collect is given to conservation biologists who use it to assess bird populations’ health and observe long-term trends.
This was probably the earliest recorded example of ‘citizen science’. This term is used in many ways. In its broad sense, citizen science is about scientists collaborating with members of the public in scientific projects. This gives people who are not traditionally involved in science and gathering data, the opportunity to become active contributors to real science.
Successful scientific studies rely on evidence collected in research. This is no less so for biodiversity conservation projects. Scientists need to understand where the species they want to protect lives, how and when it reproduces, what it eats and where it migrates to before we can find a way to protect it.
Citizen science provides an opportunity to gather large amounts of information that would otherwise be impossible to collect because of time constraints and limited resources. Citizen science thus gives scientists the ability to expand research taxonomically, geographically and temporally.
Although citizen science currently has a supportive role in conservation and ecology, an increasing number of researchers are recognising its benefits and are working with citizen scientists.
This is just as true in Malta as it is elsewhere in the world. More and more people in Malta are becoming citizen scientists, and the benefits are huge both for them as individuals and for science on the islands.
Citizen science [is] a vital step towards democratising science
In Malta, Green House volunteers monitor and record data on orchids and bees while out on nature walks. They also monitor and record bat sightings by going on night walks in towns and villages or simply from the comfort of their own backyard by using specially provided bat detectors. Data from these citizen science projects are actively contributing to local biodiversity databases and distribution maps.
But the contribution of citizen science goes beyond just gathering or unravelling data. Enthusiastic volunteers also bring their own computer equipment and technological skills to assist with number crunching and data analysis. They fill in knowledge gaps by providing scientists with extra hands, eyes, computers, cameras, smartphones and vehicles.
However, like any scientific tool, there are limits to what citizen science can accomplish. Citizen science can get complicated when there are large groups of people involved and it requires a considerable amount of management from organisation to skills training. Not surprisingly, criticism of this kind of collaborative scientific research normally revolves around the accuracy or quality of data collected by people who are not experts in a scientific field.
Inclusivity is also a particular challenge when it comes to citizen science projects. It can be difficult to involve people who don’t have their own transport or access to smartphones, computers and internet.
Yet despite its challenges and limitations, citizen science plays an important role in global conservation initiatives. It can inspire people to take an interest in science and enthuse young people about careers in science. It is also a practical, hands-on way of engaging the public in science which directly affects their physical environment, bridging the gap between society and the scientific community.
By giving the wider society the opportunity to be part of the scientific process, citizen science serves as an educational tool for people to become more scientifically literate. This creates more knowledgeable and constructive dialogue between experts and non-experts; which is what makes citizen science, above all, a vital step towards democratising science.
Anyone can start contributing to the conservation of Malta’s flora and fauna by joining any of the research projects being conducted by Green House. To stay informed about its various volunteering opportunities and for more information, visit its Facebook page below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.