Citizen Science and Biodiversity: Thoughts From a Meeting With the European Citizen Science Association

Image Credit: NPS Photo, CC BY-SA 2.0

A collection of biodiversity researchers from across Europe came together in Brussels for a unique kind of meeting last week. We were connected by two common threads: first, we are all supported by BiodivERsA, a large network of European biodiversity research projects funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program. And second, most importantly, we are all interested in connecting our biodiversity research with citizen science in one form or another.

Before I go on, I should define citizen science for those who are new to the idea. In short, citizen science happens when volunteers participate in the scientific research process (you might also hear this called community science, or participatory science). If you’re thinking that this could look like a LOT of different things in practice, you’re absolutely right! Citizen science is a wide, diverse field, which is part of what makes it so exciting.

But back to BiodivERsA. Last week’s meeting was an inspiring and sometimes slightly chaotic (in a good way!) coming-together of researchers from all kinds of different backgrounds. The meeting had three parallel goals that shaped the topics we covered:

  1. To convene the European Citizen Science Association’s annual General Assembly.
  2. To celebrate the culmination of Doing it Together Science, a three-year partnership with an impressive track record of empowering the public to participate in scientific research.
  3. And finally, to explore ways for BiodivERsA researchers to strengthen their research by incorporating citizen science.

As BiodivERsA researchers, we were drawn to the meeting by the third goal, but we had opportunities to participate in all parts of the meeting. A beautiful thing about meetings that cover so much ground is that you inevitably find yourself exposed to a wide range of new ideas. To mention just a few:

We learned what a remarkably strong network of support there is for citizen science in Europe through an excellent introduction to the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) presented by ECSA’s vice chair, Lucy Robinson.

Meise_caitlinmandevillephoto

The Meise Botanical Gardens plays home to a wide variety of European species, which we were able to contribute to the documentation of during our trip (Image Credit: Caitlin Mandeville, NTNU University Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0)

We were inspired by the use of citizen science to reach both scientific and public engagement goals presented by Dr. Helen Roy from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. (Check out more of her work here.)

Another highlight was Tord Snäll, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, introduced an important discussion about special data analysis methods required to work with citizen science data. This is an essential topic for any biodiversity researchers who want to work with citizen science data—every citizen science project works just a little differently, and it’s so important to plan data analysis methods carefully for each project to use the data as well as possible. (We’ve talked about the importance of careful citizen science project design and data analysis before here.)

As you might be able to tell, the emphasis throughout the meeting was on citizen science as a method rather than the scientific results of studies that used citizen science. This came as a bit of a surprise to some of the biodiversity researchers attending the meeting. But in the end, I think we all came away with a sense of the complexity and richness of citizen science as a research method. With so many intended outcomes—collecting valuable research data, providing authentic research experiences to citizen scientists, democratizing the process of scientific research, etc.—it is no wonder that there is a rich body of research into the strengths and weaknesses of, and ways to keep improving, citizen science as a research method. It’s heartening to know that there are entire professional associations dedicated to strengthening the field of citizen science (ECSA fills this role in Europe, and see also the US-based Citizen Science Association, the Australian Citizen Science Association, and CitizenScience.Asia).

A real highlight of the meeting was our visit to the Meise Botanic Garden to practice doing some citizen science ourselves. We roamed their gorgeous grounds (on the site of a twelfth-century castle!) while using iNaturalist to photograph, identify, and upload our observations of the springtime vegetation and migrating birds present in the gardens.

iNaturalist is a great entry into citizen science, and we’d highly encourage any of you reading this to give it a try yourselves! All you need is a camera and access to the iNaturalist website or app—before you know it, you’ll be contributing your photographs to iNaturalist’s massive (and growing) biodiversity database and building your species identification skills, with support from the iNaturalist community.

And you can rest easy knowing that there’s a dedicated community of citizen science researchers out there, working to make sure that the species observation data you upload with iNaturalist will be used as effectively as possible in ongoing biodiversity research. Check out the video below for a little more information on how it works.

Read about the NTNU “Transforming Citizen Science for Biodiversity” team’s research on citizen science data analysis methods, of which my PhD research is a part, at citizenscience.no.

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