How citizen science will save the planet

Anne Toomey will be starting a Ph.D. in citizen science this fall.
Anne will be starting a Ph.D. this fall to study citizen science as a tool for conservation.

Ponder for a moment this quote written by Aldo Leopold in the late 1940s:

“We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, or otherwise have faith in.”

Food for thought, especially if you are a citizen scientist like I am. And even more so if you are a citizen scientist who cares about the environment and believes deep down that citizen science just may save the planet. But who am I to come up with such crazy theories? Hmm, I suppose this calls for an introduction…

My name is Anne, La Señorita Toomey, citizen science aficionado and lover of all things natural. I’m so into citizen science that I’m actually embarking upon a Ph.D. program in the fall to study citizen science as a tool for conservation in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, Madidi National Park in Bolivia. In the meantime, I’m spending my days – and some insomnia-ridden nights – thinking about how and why citizen science is likely to become the most important discovery for the environmental movement in the 21st century.

With the promise of solar energy, hydrogen-powered cars, and molecule transporters (okay, so that last one is on my fantasy wish list), citizen science may sound like a hokey solution to the incredible array of environmental challenges we are currently facing. But if we look deeper into the meanings of science and citizenship, we realize that encouraging non-experts to participate in the building of knowledge about how our world works may have profound implications for the way we, as a global community, will relate to our natural environment.

So my goal over the next few months is to communicate some of my musings on this subject through a series of Science for Citizens blog posts that will explore writings from the fields of neuroscience, behavioral psychology, deep ecology and cultural anthropology. Part of the fun will be trying to get inside the brains of some of my scientific heroes, such as Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, Edward Wilson and Konrad Lorenz, in order to get a better sense of what happens when people participate in scientific research and what such participation could mean for the planet.

I am also hoping to engage with you, the reader, to pick your brain on what happens when you get ‘sciency’. For example, what is the difference between ‘seeing’ something and ‘watching’ it in a scientific way? Has citizen science opened up your eyes to a closer connection with your natural world? Has it inspired you to become more environmentally aware in other areas of your life?

These are questions that are only just beginning to be explored in academia, much less in popular culture, and I think that it’s fitting that citizens such as you and I join in the discussion from the get-go. After all, why should experts have all the fun? So on that note, let me bring your attention back to the quote at this opening of this blog and pose a question: Is Leopold right? And if so, how and why?

I can’t think of a better way to answer these questions than to get involved in the experiences of seeing, feeling, and understanding nature in all its forms through citizen science. So to conduct my own personal experiment, I’m going to sign up for a few of the projects in the Science for Citizens Project Finder, and see if and how I can learn to be more ‘environmentally ethical’ by learning to observe and think scientifically. Since I’m based in Brooklyn and have limited time this week, I’m going to get started with the Celebrate Urban Birds project.

I’ll be back next week to let you know how it goes, and in the meantime, I hope to hear from you about your own citizen science adventures!

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Categories: Biology, Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Ecology & Environment, Nature & Outdoors, Science Education Standards, Science Policy

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