Natural History is in Trouble. Can Citizen Science Save It?

A swallowtail butterfly feeds on a zinnia | Photo: Kevin Cole, some rights reserved

More than 93 percent of biologists surveyed say that a solid understanding of natural history — the study of living things and their ecological relationships outside the lab — is critical to their success as scientists. Understanding many of the environmental problems facing our society today, from coral bleaching to climate change, rely upon understanding the basic natural history of Earth's ecosystems. And yet just 11 percent of scientists report that their academic training provided enough exposure to natural history.

Could citizen science projects help change that?

Natural history itself is quite an old field, one that hasn't necessarily benefitted from several centuries of technological innovations, at least on the surface. A naturalist today would likely be armed with many of the same tools – binoculars, notebook, butterfly net – as folks like Charles Darwin or Alfred Russell Wallace. This is a field devoted to understanding organisms in their natural environments, to understanding where and when species occur in nature and how they interact, a field just as critical today as it was a century ago. Natural historians document species invasions, identify new species, understand how animals respond to climate change, and figure out how humans and wildlife manage to coexist.

These figures come from a study recently conducted by UC Riverside conservation biologist Cameron W. Barrows. Together with colleagues from UC Riverside and UC Davis, Barrows distributed to a survey to early-career scientists, faculty, and other non-academic professionals in the ecology and environmental science fields at California universities. In all, they received nearly 400 responses.

The survey also found that 70 percent of researchers believed that field-based research provided important training opportunities, and that more than half felt they did not have sufficient expertise to teach a course in natural history. Eighty percent felt they could benefit from more training in natural history. The study was published in the journal BioScience.

The problem is that ecology has shifted in recent decades away from teaching and research grounded in natural history. Today's ecologists are focusing instead on new techniques in statistical modeling and high-powered genomics, ostensibly because these methods yield more grant dollars and publications in flashier scientific journals. The dichotomy was made painfully clear earlier this year, when the National Science Foundation announced that their support of the "Collections in Support of Biological Research" funding mechanism, which supports the ongoing maintenance of natural history collections, would be placed on hold.

The obvious truth is that the two approaches aren't dichotomous at all, and ought to be complementary. Collaboration between theoretical ecologists and field researchers should be commonplace. This is a model already well-used in the worlds of physics and cosmology, a system made highly visible when field researchers at CERN verified the existence of the Higgs boson, or when LIGO revealed evidence of gravitational waves.

Unless kids have a chance to connect with the natural world, they may not develop an interest in nature. | Photo: USFWS 

The shift away from traditional natural history methods coincides with a time in which students are increasingly coming to universities from cities without easy access to wild spaces to pique childhood interests in environmental science. It's a trend that the researchers think is true not just in California, but at institutions of higher learning worldwide.

"How do you weigh adding classes that focus on the newest theoretic paradigms, modeling techniques, or statistical approaches versus removing arguably foundational courses that introduce students to fieldwork and developing natural-history skills?" Barrows and his colleagues ask.

Barrows and his colleagues argue that citizen science can help fill in the gap by providing researchers with opportunities for incorporating natural history into their research and teaching. "Acquiring skills such as engaging the public, organizing data collection by large field teams, and expanding on traditional methods of data collection may be the key to keeping natural history relevant in the twenty-first century," they write, but the question of what to do about it still remains, especially as many colleges and universities struggle for funding.

It also requires a fundamental rethink in how environmental science and ecology are taught before students ever reach the university level, with a shift away from facts and memorization to a more experiential, inquiry-based approach grounded in citizen science. That's a shift that's already starting, as public institutions like the Natural History Museum and the Aquarium of the Pacific work to incorporate citizen science into their educational offerings, both for the general public and for visiting schoolchildren.

Perhaps a new, more egalitarian, more diverse generation of Charles Darwins and Alfred Wallaces are out in our cities and parks right now, photographing butterflies and squirrels with their smartphones for inclusion in some citizen science project. We'll need them if we have any hope of coping with an ecologically uncertain future.

Banner photo by goldentakin. Some rights reserved.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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