Long before biodiversity became a mainstay of the conservation lexicon, amateur naturalists were trekking through the field, observing and recording the occurrence and distribution of species. Today, volunteer participation in ecological research is hailed as a pillar of effective community-based environmental management. This “citizen science” integrates environmental education with conservation biology, and can thus inform ecological management while fostering public awareness of critical environmental issues.
“Citizen science” integrates environmental education with conservation biology, and can thus inform ecological management while fostering public awareness of critical environmental issues.
Even with the additional effort required to train and supervise volunteers, citizen science programs can save considerable expense and time in the field (Darwall and Dulvy 1996; Newman et al. 2003), allowing for the expansion of existing research programs (Darwall and Dulvy 1996; Fore et al. 2001). Furthermore, participating in citizen science programs may strengthen volunteer commitment to conservation (Evans et al. 2005). Miles et al. (1998) found that volunteers in ecological restoration initiatives developed a “hands-on, healing relationship” with the natural world. This relationship can spur further environmental action: 4.5% of the volunteers participating in a U.K. mammal survey subsequently switched to conservation-oriented careers, while some 30% joined conservation groups (Newman et al. 2003). Because of this potential for inspiring community involvement in environmental issues, participatory science has been identified as one of the most urgently needed environmental education initiatives for cultivating successful community-based environmental management (Evans and Birchenough 2001; Danielsen et al. 2005).
Despite the benefits of citizen science, some scientists have expressed concern about the validity of volunteer-generated data. Indeed, certain projects are not appropriate for volunteer involvement: complex research methods (Newman et al. 2003) and projects that require long hours of arduous or repetitive work (Darwall and Dulvy 1996; Newman et al. 2003) and taxonomic identification to the species level (Penrose and Call 1995; Darwall and Dulvy 1996; Fore et al. 2001) may not be suitable for volunteers. Without proper training in research and monitoring protocols, volunteers are also more likely to introduce bias into their data (Eaton et al. 2002; Danielsen et al. 2005).
When designed with these limitations in mind, however, citizen science initiatives can make important contributions to science and management. Numerous studies have demonstrated that volunteers can successfully perform basic data collection tasks when given a half day or more of practical field training (Darwall and Dulvy 1996; Graham et al. 1996; Evans et al. 2000; Fore et al. 2001; Foster-Smith and Evans 2003). In fact, Fore et al. (2001) found no difference between freshwater macroinvertebrate samples collected by trained volunteers and control samples collected by professional scientists. Because much of the fieldwork needed for ecological monitoring is labor-intensive but technically straightforward (Foster-Smith and Evans 2003), volunteer monitoring projects carry considerable scientific potential.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that volunteers can successfully perform basic data collection tasks when given a half day or more of practical field training.
Today many organizations engage citizens in ecological research and monitoring through participatory science programs (Penrose and Call 1995; Eaton et al. 2002), but the success of these programs varies according to their unique ecological, social, and organizational settings. For instance, whereas a local organization might find volunteer monitoring useful for informing small-scale water quality management decisions, a national park might determine that the same monitoring protocol does not meet its need for data that can withstand scientific scrutiny in a peer-reviewed journal or court of law (Penrose and Call 1995). In order, then, to engage more communities in valid, valuable ecological monitoring, it is first necessary to evaluate pilot citizen science projects across a variety of ecosystems and organizations (Foster-Smith and Evans 2003).
As a prototype park for the National Park Service (NPS) Inventory and Monitoring Program, Cape Cod National Seashore (Massachusetts) already takes a lead in the development of monitoring protocols for Atlantic and Gulf coastal ecosystems. This role also provides an opportunity for the national seashore to serve as a model for integrating citizen science into ecosystem monitoring efforts. Cape Cod scientists have identified a need for baseline information about benthic mollusk populations in restoring estuaries; because mollusks are relatively easy to sample and are culturally and commercially important in coastal New England, national seashore managers also support volunteer involvement in mollusk monitoring.
The objectives of this study were to determine (1) whether volunteers can collect reliable, reproducible data on mollusk populations for use in Cape Cod National Seashore’s estuarine monitoring and management programs, and (2) whether such citizen science projects increase participant support for estuarine restoration on Cape Cod.
Thelen, B. A., and R. K. Thiet. 2008. Research Report: Cultivating connection: Incorporating meaningful citizen science into Cape Cod National Seashore's estuarine research and monitoring programs. Park Science 25(1):74–80.
Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/ParkScience/archive/PDF/Article_PDFs/ParkScience25(1)Summer2008_74-80_ThelenThiet_2598.pdf.