Citizen science? Now where have I heard that expression before? Well, it appears a number of times in my book. In fact, when I wrote “Lakeland,” I thought I had invented the term. At least I did not find it in use at the time of writing the early drafts, back in 2005.
Whatever the origin of the term, the important thing is that citizen science is sprouting all over the place, and I believe it is a great ray of hope for our Noah’s Ark of a planet. I vowed to myself that, when I was finished writing “Lakeland,” I would do what I could to promote the concept. So here goes.
In its most practical sense, citizen science refers to a working partnership between professional scientists and lay people who want to participate in science at some level. Probably the most famous example is the annual Christmas Bird Count, a census of winter bird populations conducted by volunteers across the Americas and the Caribbean. The data has been collected for about a century now, and is fundamental to many branches of ornithology and bird conservation science. (Links on this and more at the end.) Dr. Heather Hinam, a friend from Manitoba, depended upon hundreds of volunteers in her study of saw-whet owls and the impact of habitat fragmentation. The study of variable stars, which is fundamental to our understanding of all stars, likewise depends on nightly observations by thousands of amateur astronomers worldwide. My friend Richard Huziak is one of these. Since 1976 he has personally logged 170,000 observations of variable stars in addition to his numerous other contributions to astronomical citizen science.
Obviously, a standing army of volunteers is potentially of great benefit to scientist. So what do citizens get out of the partnership?
Science is fun. It is a state of mind, a mode of engaging the world which, at its purest level, takes us back to the curiosity of childhood. Like creative writing, acting, painting, or music, science is one of those things that society allows us to dabble in as school kids. Yet in the world of adults, such fields become the exclusive domain of trained specialists. It’s a good thing that science was still wide open to amateurs in the days of Leonardo Da Vinci, Margaret Cavendish, or even Charles Darwin.
Citizens are especially drawn to science as a form of environmental activism. Attending meetings, helping out with public awareness campaigns, making donations to conservation organizations — as vital as such things are to the environmental cause, they happen at some remove from the natural world itself. Many people, myself included, are hungry to help defend a vibrant biosphere in a way that also serves to bring them closer to it.
Here in Saskatchewan, the provincial water authority used to run a program of lake water testing in which a scientist from the department would be sent out to collect samples wherever local people were willing to provide a boat and some helpers. I once spent a beautiful October day aboard such a boat with young scientist named Lorelei Ford (pictured in the photo) and two retired farmers from the area who were serving as her crew. It was delightful to watch the older fellows vie with each other over who got to hold the GPS unit, to hear the reverence with which they called out the pH and temperature readings coming from the submerged sensors, to observe the care with which they recorded the numbers. The pair had a lifetime knowledge of their home waters — its fish and bird populations, its degree of shoreline damage caused by cattle, etc. — going back decades. Now they had a way of using their expertise, and the excitement was written on their faces. The young scientist had a great working rapport with her two amateur colleagues, and it seemed to me that stewardship of that lake was in the very best of hands.
Sadly, the government of Premier Brad Wall cancelled the program.
However, it just may be that citizens don’t need governments at all in creating a better kind of conservation science, one that will be reliably carried on from year to year, generation to generation, one that can help steward the biosphere indefinitely into the future. Sound like a dream?
There is a political component to citizen science that is changing the world right now. I believe it might just save the planet, and I will explore that idea in the next installment.
To learn more about the Christmas Bird Count, including ways to participate, you can try here:
Or, if you are in Canada, start here:
If you have done some astronomy and want to give your observing more purpose, explore the world of variable stars here:
Here is a link from the same site where you can learn more about the citizen scientist I mentioned, Richard Huziak:
Water quality monitoring is a form of citizen science gathering momentum. Try this link: