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Citizen Science Can Help Save The Planet

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Participant in the Cascades Butterfly Project
Citizen scientist participant in the Cascades Butterfly Project | Photo: Mount Rainier National Park

At any given time, somebody somewhere in LA is doing science. It could be a biologist in a university lab peering through a microscope, or an astronomer on top of Mount Wilson gazing up at the heavens, or an ecologist scraping barnacles off of rocks in Malibu's intertidal zone, or a lawyer snapping a photo of a lizard with her smartphone. You don’t need formal training to do science; scientific progress owes much to talented, engaged amateurs. That remains true even today, as technology has allowed researchers to harness the data-generating power of citizen science in more profound ways than ever before.

But today's citizen scientists aren't just involved in a glorified educational experience, nor are they simply a relatively inexpensive way for researchers to command vast armies of research assistants. Citizen science can even result in conservation successes, allowing folks without scientific training to help preserve the biodiversity in their neighborhoods and throughout the world.

That's the conclusion of new research that considered the effects of citizen science programming at three Natural History Museums: one in San Francisco, one in London, and our very own Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

"Despite the recent surge in citizen science projects globally," the researchers write in the journal Biological Conservation, "evidence that citizen science contributes to [conservation] has only recently begun to be examined." To do so, the team – made up of  researchers from each of the three museums in addition to a UC Davis education researcher unaffiliated with any of the museums – compiled information from forty-four citizen science efforts across the institutions (31 of which remain active today), which have over time engaged a combined total of some 80,000 citizens. Then the unaffiliated researcher investigated whether each effort benefitted conservation efforts.

Nearly sixty percent of the 44 programs had solid evidence of positive conservation outcomes.

For example, a bioblitz held in London's Alexandra Palace Park allowed local government to use the data as motivation for designating the park as a local nature reserve. (A bioblitz is an event designed to take a biodiversity snapshot in one place at one time, typically involving participants taking photos of animals and plants with their smartphones.) A similar event held at Oakland's Lake Merritt found marine organisms in the lake, evidence that restoration attempts that involved reconnecting the lake to the San Francisco Bay had been successful.

In Los Angeles, ongoing citizen science projects aimed at cataloguing the city's reptilian, amphibian, squirrel, and spider fauna have allowed museum researchers to track ongoing invasions by introduced species, some of which resulted in the first known evidence of those species in the county or state. And the BioSCAN project alone has produced five scientific papers so far, including the formal description of thirty new kinds of flies previously unknown to science.  Across all three museums, two decades of citizen science had resulted in at least 30 scientific publications.

Citizen science projects have even influenced conservation policy. An angler-targeted program of London's museum called the "Riverfly Partnership," for example, led to the creation of a Biodiversity Action Plan, which was included in the UK government's formal response to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

If researchers were to rely on data collected the conventional way, the delay between identifying a problem and formulating a possible solution would take too long given the urgency of the world's biodiversity crisis. "As we think about how to overcome the great biodiversity challenges, things like the lack of biodiversity data, climate change, impacts of urbanization, and habitat loss, it highlights that citizen science is a way to get lots of data really quickly," says study co-author Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum in LA.

And because museums are so often located in urban areas, they are well positioned to reach an ethnically diverse audience. It takes effort, though. Pauly's reptile monitoring program (RASCals) gained most of its data from participants in LA's most diverse, urbanized areas, because the museum's staff worked hard to engage neighbors there.

This kind of location-based engagement also helps folks connect the preservation of nature in their own neighborhoods with more global environmental concerns. In Los Angeles, many Latino families participated in citizen science camp-outs, where they learned to document plants and animals using their phones. Preliminary evidence suggests that around one third of those who are trained to do this kind of data collection for the first time continue sending natural history observations to the museum. It's an important outcome, especially for communities that have historically been ignored by environmental organizations.

For Pauly this paper isn't meant only to allay the concerns of researchers. It's also intended as a means of demonstrating the value of citizen science to the citizen scientists themselves. "What we know in citizen science is that the participants want feedback. They want to know that their data collection is making a difference," he says. "It's not just making a difference. It's making a huge difference."

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