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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
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What is Citizen Science and Why Should I Do It?

There is a fabulous metallic green beetle flitting around on the ground right next to where you have sat down for a rest from your hike. “What is that incredible insect?” You wonder. “Is it rare? If I catch it on my iPhone’s camera, will I ever be able to find someone to ID it?” Thanks to the ongoing revolution in citizen science technology, the answer to that last question is yes!

Technology is connecting people in ever more diverse ways while simultaneously democratizing a wide variety of endeavors. Science is no exception. Citizen science is proliferating around the globe and is now a recognized force for good, providing not only data that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive to collect, but also giving people worldwide an outlet for meaningful involvement in conservation and many other issues.

What is Citizen Science?

According to the Citizen Science Association, citizen science is the involvement of the public in scientific research—whether community-driven research or global investigations. The scientific work undertaken by members of the general public is often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions, which ensures data quality (i.e. results that are comparable across observers and reflect what is actually happening out there in the real world.)

The power of citizen science is exemplified by the granddaddy of them all: Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird. Created in 2002, eBird had more than 420,000 eBirders as of December 2018 who have contributed more than 590 million bird observations worldwide, making eBird the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project. eBird data make a difference for birds by helping to inspire the millions of people who come to eBird to learn; by assisting the tens of thousands of people who use eBird data for research, conservation, and education; and by informing habitat conservation and policy work that helps the birds themselves.

Environmental Citizen Science

Citizen science is especially important when it comes to field biology and conservation. A number of factors are driving this:

Phone apps and the internet make learning, training, and the sharing and organization of data, photos and other information not only feasible but easy.

The long, slow decline over decades of field biology and “naturalist” training relative to other types of science makes the need for volunteer labor greater than ever before.

Research demonstrates that people are more attracted to species labeled as “rare” compared to those considered common, and this is a factor driving many programs that catalog species.

Scientists now recognize that large quantities of citizen science data can provide insights into large-scale changes, almost in real-time, that can be valid and of “research quality.” An example of this is eBird observations have allowed scientists to comprehensively understand population level movements of migratory bird species. By combining these sightings with remote-sensed habitat data from NASA, they are gaining insights into better conservation strategies. View the eBird intro video for a compelling overview of the program’s power. With the exception of minor investments in equipment and travel, most citizen science programs are free to participants, while also providing free observations to the scientists who need them.

Why volunteer for a citizen project (or two or three?)

  • If you are tired of being asked to “contribute” solely via your wallet,
  • If you’d like to receive training related to a career or hobby,
  • If you want to become an expert in something you already understand,
  • If you want to meet people with common interests,
  • If you’d like the excuse to travel someplace new and sometimes very beautiful,
  • If you’d enjoy slowing down and taking time to really notice the brilliant green beetles with whom you share the planet….

Then consider citizen science. The world needs you.

View or print a photo-illustrated version of this Citizen Science article.

Download a lengthy list of citizen science projects available to residents of Tennessee.

View all recent projects

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