Science Story

U.S. Forest Service R&D Contributed to Historic Day for Citizen Science

Lily Whiteman
Research & Development
October 22nd, 2015 at 2:15PM

​September 30, 2015 was a day of important scientific and policy milestones for citizen science—the participation of nonscientists in scientific research.  The U.S. Forest Service R&D contributed to this special day by helping to produce a paper about citizen science for land managers and decision makers.

The paper—Investing in Citizen Science Can Improve Natural Resource Management and Environmental Protection—was written by a 21-person multidisciplinary team that was co-led by R&D ecologist, Duncan McKinley. 

A photo of volunteers sorting and identifying specimens for a biodiversity survey.

The paper is the 19th in an Ecological Society of America (ESA) series, Issues in Ecology.

“Publication of the report in a stand-alone ESA journal has the potential to increase the visibility and legitimacy of citizen science in the scientific community,” said McKinley.

Investing in Citizen Science is “specifically designed to help land managers and decision-makers at government agencies, non-profits, museums and other organizations evaluate whether to create programs for citizen science and how to design programs that would best meet their organization’s goals,” says  McKinley.

Article Coverage

Written in reader-friendly language, the article explains how citizen science can help organizations to:

  • Meet core information needs for research and monitoring.
  • Promote environmental stewardship and public involvement in environmental decision-making.
  • Spread knowledge and scientific literacy.
  • Encourage collaboration.
  • Address questions of local concern.
  • Expand awareness of an organization’s mission.

Also, Investing in Citizen Science features several case studies of successful citizen science programs run by the Forest Service and covers the limitations and investments required of citizen science. 

Important Policy Milestones for Citizen Science

On the same day that Investing in Citizen Science was published, citizen science was also advanced by several major policy initiatives including the following:

  1. The White House held a forum on citizen science and crowdsourcing.
  1. John P. Holdren, Director of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, issued a memo, Addressing Societal and Scientific Challenges through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing. This memo explains principles that Federal agencies should embrace to derive the greatest value and impact from citizen science and crowdsourcing projects
  1. A Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit was released to help agencies design, carry out, and manage citizen science and crowdsourcing projects.

Why Now?

The September 30 events along with other recent high-profile citizen science events suggest that citizen science is currently gaining respect in the scientific and policy communities.  Why is this happening now?  Largely because the Internet and mobile technologies that are equipped with cameras and GPSs and other sensors now enable veritable armies of citizen scientists to contribute huge volumes of data to centralized databases that be analyzed in near real-time—which was never before possible.

Forest Service Programs

The Forest Service currently runs many citizen science programs that address varied topics.  For example, such groups are currently collecting data on urban forestry, rare plants, and the ranges of wolverines. 

In addition, the contributions of citizen scientists have been pivotal to various research projects conducted by R&D researchers.  For example, Samuel Cushman, an R&D research ecologist and recipient of the Forest Service Deputy Chief’s Award for Distinguished Science for 2014, says that citizen science has been key to several of his most important projects—particularly the Multi-Species Baseline Initiative, which is an interagency effort to conduct surveys for multiple species at thousands of locations across tens of millions of acres in the U.S. Northern Rocky Mountains.

Cushman says that this project, which began in 2003, has been advanced by more than 100 citizen scientists who have spent more than 1400 hours deploying and collecting thousands of weather stations, collecting soil samples, and deploying remote cameras and baiting stations for carnivore detection. “Without the citizen science contribution, it would have been impossible for us to accomplish the scale of work we performed.  Citizen scientists multiplied our workforce several fold and increased our ability to collect vast data sets from immense numbers of sample locations across millions of acres,” said Cushman.

Data Quality

The field of citizen science has long been dogged by skepticism about the reliability of data produced by non-scientists.  However, McKinley points out that: 1) Data for scientific studies in ecology has traditionally been collected by undergrads, grad students and volunteers—not lead scientists.  Therefore, citizen scientists are more similar to traditional data collectors than commonly believed; and 2) Citizen scientists are usually particularly motivated and tend to self-select themselves out of studies if they lose interest in them.  Therefore, they tend to adhere to data collection protocols they are taught.  

McKinley’s viewpoints have been borne out by studies showing that the reliability of data collected by citizen scientists that has been subjected to quality controls/assurances is comparable to that of data collected by traditional sources.