Case Studies

Citizen Science Initiatives

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Title: Citizen Science Initiatives: organizing/educating citizen scientists/stewards

Discussion Group Leaders: Julie Byrne and Andy Mele

Andy Mele spoke about his work with Sarasota Baywatch, a four-year-old organization using citizen science to preserve the Sarasota Bay. Sarasota Baywatch engages in various conservation and restoration projects in the bay area. They have released four million scallops into the Sarasota Bay, after conducting research suggesting that there was a scallop shortage. They plan to release four million more in April. They also conduct large-scale volunteer island cleanups, and disseminate information.

By rotating volunteers often and making education a very high priority, Mele suggested that environmental research and conservation could be a lot of fun. He also remarked that in citizen science it is important to make sure your volunteers feel taken care of, and that they have something nice waiting for them when their work is done.

One issue that Mele mentioned about citizen science is that data collected by large groups of people without credentials on the line is often taken less seriously. But when such data has obvious and distressing implications, it can still be hard to ignore.

Julie Byrne discussed her project to protect birds that nest on popular, local beaches. Human activities endanger these birds in a variety of ways. When trash cans are too close to the shore, crows are drawn in that eat vulnerable eggs. When people let their dogs run free on the beach, they often trample nests. Cleanup vehicles also often harm chicks when they are trying to eat on the rack line. Erosion on rookery islands is another problem, as is boating too near to them.

Because of citizen science research, $700,000 was allocated to try to stop erosion on rookery islands. It remains to be seen how effective this will be. But conditions are quite dire: fewer than ten chicks have been observed to be saved per year, for the last three years. Because rescuing these chicks is so difficult, extremely proactive recruitment is necessary, coming down even to cornering people in popular beach parking lots.

68% of bird species have declined 80% since 1960, as was determined by Bird Watch, an old and massive citizen science initiative. Nesting birds on the beach, in particular, are in dire need of assistance.

More generally, Byrne and Mele discussed issues with citizen science. Citizen science requires flexibility on both sides. Things will go wrong, and financial constraints will loom. If the volunteers don't enjoy themselves, they'll stop coming. Data collectors, in need of data, also have to compromise and understand that citizen scientists have been rigorous enough, and they cannot wait for paid experts to do the same research.

Conservation initiatives also tend to be thwarted by landowners afraid of change, and these landowners often refuse to back down. Scientists must foster a culture of respect and compromise, while not giving up on crucial initiatives.

There wasn't much disagreement, and everyone agreed on the importance of student involvement in volunteer efforts. But, Byrne complained, students can be very flaky.

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