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The power of citizen science across Australia and beyond

23 June 2020
Promoting public participation and collaboration in research
There are far-reaching benefits to participating in science and research as part of our everyday lives.
Citizen science involves public participation and collaboration in scientific research with the aim to increase scientific knowledge.
Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA)
A group of citizen scientists exploring a rocky coastline

Citizen science provides a way for the public or ‘citizen scientists’ to actively engage with science and contribute to research initiatives, while at the same time acquiring new skills and knowledge, building communities, and advancing social relationships. As a distinct category under general volunteering, citizen science enables members of the public to contribute to research as partners in knowledge generation.

The advantages of using citizen science as a tool in science research has been well documented. It allows environmental observations to be done at geographic and computational scales that have never been seen before. Larger data sets have been used to inform modelling, hypothesis generation and analysis, resulting in the discovery of, for example, new species, identifying invasive species or even finding new galaxies.

A young woman's hands searching through undergrowth

There is another set of long-term benefits that are often less explicitly recorded in the results section of a research project, which can even be cumulative across multiple research projects. These are the benefits to the actual citizen science participants: 

  • Increasing the level of scientific literacy within the community with the introduction and practice of the scientific approach
  • Encouraging individuals to consider Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) study pathways and careers
  • Maintaining an active mind and a sense of contributing to society regardless of age, gender and cultural background
  • Often motivating participants to get out in the environment and stay active (Covid-19 permitting)
  • Providing a sense of achievement and contribution to a worthwhile project

A well-designed citizen science project will seek to combine the benefits to science research with the benefits to the participants themselves. This not only supports the community but also tends to encourage higher engagement as participants feel more acknowledged and feel a greater appreciation for how their contribution has mattered.

Scuba diving citizen scientists at work under water

Citizen science is providing an outlet for curious and active minds during the current Coronavirus pandemic during lockdown and as restrictions ease, for example the online projects on the Earth School's blog and those offered via ACSA/ALA Project Finder.

Recently, citizen science has been the focus of an entire quest within Earth School. This is an initiative of the UN Environment Program, TED Ed and other partners around the world, consisting of 30-days of interactive “quests” including watching videos and doing activities that kids could do from home anywhere in the world. This included our own Aussie-grown virtual projects Virtual Reef Diver and DigiVol’s Wildlife Spotter! 

While citizen science extends into many domains such as health, astronomy and social sciences, the current focus in Australia is projects that directly support future bushfire monitoring, recovery and resilience. With the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, citizen science projects such as INaturalist and Questagame (among many) can be done in the backyard, at the local park or while walking through a National Park.  Some also address the most recent bushfires (e.g. Environment Recovery Project - INaturalist, and Australian Bushfire Recovery BioQuest - QuestaGame).

To date, these initiatives have facilitated collecting thousands of data observations with hundreds of people curating these observations. Other current projects are focused on space, particularly the development of satellite-based imagery products such as through NASA’s Globe Observer or the University of Aberystwyth’s Earth Track some additional projects have been publicised via the recent ABC news article.  

Regardless of whether it is online or on-ground, citizen science can have many and varied benefits to all parties involved. As technological advancements make it easier for people to participate, the rapid expansion of the variety of projects and citizen involvement is likely to continue to increase for the good of the general and scientific community.

Written by John Pring

Chair, ACT and Region chapter Australian Citizen Science Association

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