Science Needs Citizens

What is the first thing you imagine when you think of a typical ‘scientist’? I hedge my bets that many of you see an old man in a white coat, hunched over in a dark corner of a laboratory with colorful vials of chemicals bubbling around him. Was I close?

The reality is that scientists can come in many shapes and sizes, stemming from an array of personal and educational backgrounds. In the 21st Century, a scientist can be a mom of three, who hunkers down for the evening to count cancer cells on her computer screen, or a retired gentleman, who spends his days eagerly watching the sea, recording any marine mammals he sees. The widely accepted definition of citizen science is ‘scientific research conducted wholly or partly by non-professional scientists’, and unbeknown to many, citizen scientists have been busy bees, mining away at data long before this phrase was coined.

Citizen scientist training for collection of river biomonitoring data ©Catherine Paquette, WWF-Canada

In the field of biology, amateur scientists have been recording butterflies and birds since the 1970’s, way back in the day before handy smartphone apps, which are more now commonly used to record species. The growth of citizen science projects, from small enterprises commenced by enthusiastic hobbyists to nationwide or even worldwide monitoring programmes, has largely been the result of both technological advances and change in perception regarding what ordinary folk can contribute to scientific research.

For many years, people have asked themselves ‘what can science do for me’, however the dawn of citizen science has turned the tables somewhat and has opened a world of opportunity for people to question ‘what can I do for science?’.

For biology-based projects, quite often the driving motivational force behind citizen science involvement, is a vested interest in the species being studied or the implications of the research. Biological monitoring (biomonitoring) initiatives repeatedly tick both of these boxes and many previous projects have been successful in attaining large numbers of data-collecting volunteers. Whether it is counting snow hares in the Peak District, ‘paparazziing’ bumble bees around local wildflower patches or kicking up a riverbed to unearth the hidden wonders of bug communities; citizens have been making science happen across the world.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.

Newly CABIN certified members ©Catherine Paquette, WWF-Canada

When it comes to biomonitoring initiatives, the implications of the research are often much more widespread that local wildflower patches or babbling brooks. The data amateur scientists collect is an intricate puzzle piece which helps science understand the inner workings of nature and how what we do as humans can affect the balance. Through citizen science, people can gain valuable skills and knowledge in the natural world as well as acquiring ownership over both data collected and how themselves, as an ordinary citizen, can actively participate to improve the world we live in. The benefits from volunteering time for these initiatives goes even deeper; getting out into the wilderness enables us to momentarily switch off from the hectic hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, allowing us to drink in the wonderous sounds and smells of nature.

As with the academic world, citizen science projects are evolving with technology. I have already mentioned the use of smartphones to collect data, however citizen science is also branching out into the field of DNA biomonitoring. The term ‘environmental DNA’, also known as ‘eDNA’, refers to the DNA which can be found in different environments, from rivers to seas to soils. This DNA has been released from a species via urine, feces, loss of skin cells or through the decomposition of a carcass. Similar to the way forensic scientists collect DNA evidence at a crime scene, either from blood or hairs, we can collect DNA from a range of different ecosystems and find out what species or variety of species exist there.

STREAM (Sequencing The River for Environmental Assessment and Monitoring) DNA, is a new community-based project which involves the collection of eDNA from rivers across the whole of Canada. STREAM is a collaboration between World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada, Living Lakes Canada (LLC), Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and the University of Guelph and aims to engage members of the public to collect data for monitoring of river health.

This type of biomonitoring typically involves collecting riverbed (or benthic) samples so that river bugs can be collected and identified using microscopes and taxonomic keys. However, this method can take a considerable amount of time and, depending on the life stage of the bugs, also be inaccurate. DNA biomonitoring on the other hand involves the same sampling protocol, but the only difference is that DNA is extracted directly from the sample.  

Kick-sampling for macroinvertebrates ©Catherine Paquette, WWF-Canada

Kick-sampling river benthos allows the scientists back in the lab to compare the DNA which is in the sample with a known DNA database of all the different bug species, so that we can rapidly and accurately identify which bugs were in the sample. Overall, the STREAM project will allow a huge database to be established, with all the different bug species which can be found in watersheds from Newfoundland all the way across to British Columbia. Scientists can then start asking questions as to how these species change in response to both climatic and human-induced activities.

Our understanding of how the natural world functions only improves with extra information. To be able to understand what the effects of environmental issues such as water pollution and global temperature increase have on the bugs which live in our rivers, we need to have an idea of what bugs we currently have. River bugs are a pivotal part of their ecosystem, and without the bugs many other species such as fish would cease to exist. Understanding where different species of bug are and how these bugs work together to form communities, is important for preserving habitats and keeping our rivers clean and healthy. We can find all of this information out by studying eDNA collected by citizen scientists.

The transformation of citizen science from individual curiosity to nationwide programs with thousands of volunteers, highlights how much science now relies on amateur scientists to generate data. As our natural world continues to be put under pressure, there is never been a more vital time for citizens to get involved with science.

Who knows, when you now picture a scientist in your mind, you may even see yourself looking back at you.

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