Conversations about conservation: public participation in scientific research


Energy is a strange thing.  It floats around you, fills you up until you’re about ready to burst, and then it skips off, leaving you to keep up as best you can.  Last Thursday and Friday were two full days of such energy, when 60 professionals from such exotic places as Alaska, Colombia and New Jersey got together to discuss why and how public participation in scientific research (PPSR) is necessary if we are to save the world’s biodiversity.  The amazing thing about this workshop wasn’t so much that these people had a similar goal (after all, who doesn’t want to save the world?), but rather that the participants brought such a diversity of backgrounds, academic disciplines and institutions to the table.

Although the participation of citizens in scientific research goes back centuries, it is only very recently that there has been a push and pull from many different areas, leading to an amazing expansion of this kind of research and a demand for new ideas, ways to engage, and methods to understand how and why this can ultimately lead us forward in conservation.  The 50+ projects that were represented during this workshop illustrated this expansion not only by what they had in common – citizen engagement, data collection, and links to better conservation management – but also by what they didn’t.  While some projects, like FrogWatch USA or Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, invite participants from across the United States to collect data on a wide geographical scale, other projects such as Ndee bini’ bida’ilzaahi (Pictures of Apache Land) and the Fresno Bird Count are place-specific, uniquely adapted to the needs of their local community and natural environment.

On the first morning of the workshop, Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology started out the discussion by explaining that there was a ‘zero step’ that needs to be taken before initiating any citizen science project, and that is to ask oneself, “Are you sure that this is what’s needed?”  As the meeting progressed, some key questions that were raised leading up to the workshop helped to generate discussion around challenges and opportunities in specific contexts. For example, Philip Loring of the Center for Cross Cultural Studies at the University of Alaska explained that dissemination of information related to conservation science doesn’t always have to come in the form of a scientific peer-reviewed article.  He cited a project in which scientists worked with local elders along the Yukon River to identify environmental cues for anticipating salmon runs, which led to the development of an illustrated children’s book about the role that local knowledge plays in the management of natural resources.

Another participant, Finn Danielsen, an ecologist at the Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology in Denmark, described how participation in natural resource monitoring can have outcomes that empower participants to take ownership in protection their local environment.  One woman in the Itagutwa village in Tanzania said that she chose to participate in the monitoring project “because it shows them that the forest belongs to us.”

Although there was a wealth of different experiences and ideas generated over the two days of discussions and working groups, it was clear that this meeting was the start of something big and new, rather than the conclusion of something tried and tested.  Discussions often generated spirited debate among participants, which led to deeper understanding, new thinking, and ideas about how to move forward.  However, many areas of further exploration remain, and there are still wide gaps in communication between the different players in science, education and practice, calling for further conversations about the role that PPSR has to play in the field of conservation.

High school students participating in a 15-year program to monitor intertidal areas in Central Puget Sound give PPSR a thumbs-up.
High school students participating in a 15-year program with the Seattle Aquarium to monitor intertidal areas in Central Puget Sound give PPSR a thumbs-up.

One notable outcome of the workshop was a consensus that the creation of a professional association for PPSR was not just desirable but essential to moving the field forward, as were additional areas, spaces and meetings for people to collaborate on existing projects, develop ideas for new ones, and come up with ways of understanding the impacts of this kind of participatory science on people and the environment.  Several of the participants also mentioned Sci4Cit as a resource that will be valuable in garnering support for existing PPSR projects and inspiring the creation of new ones. 

Jennifer Shirk, the project leader of Citizen Science Central, summed it up well with the following: “This event was a huge step forward in bringing together different ways that the public can participate in scientific research, and also thinking about the many different ways that conservation can be enacted:  from helping to answer ‘big science’ questions to directly addressing local issues. With all of these different opportunities on the table, we can now think together about the best ways to achieve specific outcomes for science, for individual participants, and for social-ecological systems.”

As the workshop came to a close on Friday afternoon and the discussions turned to flight times and work waiting back in the office, there was a sense that the energy that had come together during the workshop was no less powerful just because it was about to be dispersed.  Rather, in the same way that a whole is more than the sum of its parts, each of us was able to return to our desks on Monday morning with the sense that we were part of something bigger, something like community.

Categories: Biology, Birds, Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Ecology & Environment, In the News, Nature & Outdoors, Ocean & Water, Science Education Standards, Science Policy

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