WHAT’S IN A NAME?

NZ Fantail, Piwakawaka_Michael Lawton_Flickr.com
Citizen science is undoubtedly a buzzword. You know that when it starts being used by government ministries in phrases like “Citizen Science is a driver for change”.

Though I’m not sure what that really means on a practical level it highlights the importance of adopting workable definitions that can then shape programmes. At this stage, citizen science refers mostly to the type of project that is led by scientists and where the volunteers’ primary role is to collect data. The Garden Bird Survey lead by Eric Spurr of Landcare Research is a great example of this – I’m tempted to take part this winter given the clear information provided and basic methods to follow. Naturewatch too is a citizen science venture albeit one that is self-directed by participants who log their finds on the website.

The broadest definition of citizen science is the participation by the public in scientific studies. Because this encompasses just about everything, numerous typologies mostly based on the level of participation of volunteers have been developed – though they still lean more towards the scientist-led end of the spectrum.

What would be the value of incorporating the science-based monitoring that community groups do as a part of their environmental restoration projects into the now global citizen science movement? Would that just be an exercise in re-branding or could it raise the profile of community groups’ activities to different audiences? In doing so might more funding become available for a task that is so rarely adequately funded? Looking even further ahead, might citizen science programmes even be developed that harness community groups’ collective environmental data across a region or geographical area?

These are some of the many questions that I’m currently grappling with in a paper titled (provisionally) “Engaging in citizen science: the current state of community-based environmental monitoring in New Zealand”. Though a grand-sounding title, it focusses mainly on community groups and draws from the online questionnaire mailed out in 2013. As I’m working to a strict deadline, there will always be these hard to answer questions, but then again, this is research on a subject relevant to a country with ongoing declines in biodiversity, and ever-worsening water quality.

One more question though, should that be Citizen Science or will citizen science suffice…?!

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