Fostering a Sense of Place: Citizen Science for Conservation Decision Making

Volunteers collect data as part of the Centennial Saguaro Survey in Arizona, USA. (Image credit: US National Park Service, CC0, Image Cropped)

When it comes to making conservation decisions, science is just the first step. Putting scientific research to work addressing conservation challenges requires collaboration between researchers, stakeholders, and the public. And increasingly, researchers point to citizen science as a way to engage the public in conservation.

A growing number of ecologists are pointing out that conservation research tends to be really good at identifying environmental problems and detecting their direct causes, but a much smaller proportion of conservation research goes on to actually develop evidence-based conservation strategies or test their effectiveness. It’s easy to see why; implementing conservation solutions simply can’t be done by scientists alone. A new set of challenges arises when you move beyond the research process and start trying to use research results to develop policies and management strategies, including defining conservation objectives, weighing the costs and benefits of alternative actions, and figuring out how to actually implement solutions.  (See our recent post about solution science for more on this topic.)

In this process of developing conservation decisions, public participation is key. Conservation decisions are all about figuring out how communities can exist sustainably within a healthy environment, so trying to make those decisions without involving the community would be a pretty meaningless exercise. And importantly, most conservation actions can only work with the trust and support of the community; after all, many conservation decisions are made by government officials who ultimately answer to the communities they serve.

Citizen Science as a Solution?

Citizen science can be a great way to facilitate conservation decision making. (If you need a refresher on the term, citizen science—or community science—refers to the participation of the public in scientific research.) Opening up conservation research to the public produces two key results: first, it gives the community a voice at early stages of the research process, including project development. This means the public can help identify conservation issues that are important to the community, ensuring that new research asks the right questions to address these issues. And second, it helps establish a trust-based relationship between researchers and the public.

But not all conservation-related citizen science projects result in concrete conservation actions or decisions. In fact, a large survey of conservation-related citizen science projects found that while 89% of projects intended for their data to be used in conservation decision making, just 54% showed any evidence of this use. At the same time, other studies have shown that most volunteers are motivated by a desire to contribute to their community and help the environment and that the vast majority of citizen scientists expect their data to contribute to scientific progress—so what’s the disconnect? Why do some citizen science projects successfully contribute to conservation decisions while others do not?

The Power of Place

It turns out that citizen science projects that successfully contribute to conservation decision making are set apart by their strong sense of place. The survey mentioned above dug deeper to consider the characteristics of projects with successful conservation outcomes and found that projects involved in decision making leveraged significantly more “dimensions of place” than projects that were not involved in decision making.

What does this mean, exactly? Essentially, projects with a strong sense of place are deeply rooted in the relationship between a community and the specific, physical environment it inhabits. Sense of place is a long-standing concept derived from the field of human geography that refers to the links between lived experience and social processes, and the physical environment in which they take place.

The Norwegian citizen science project Nature in Change takes a place-based approach to studying climate-driven shifts in treeline elevation. (Image credit: Mariusz Hermansdorfer, CC0.)

There are many ways a citizen science project can exhibit a sense of place. For instance, it can emphasize the interconnectedness of the environment and human communities; honor local history and place names; integrate local and traditional knowledge; actively build a community among its participants that empowers them to shape their relationship to the project’s place; and much more. The original study, published by Newman and colleagues in 2017, goes into much greater detail on this point and I’d encourage you to read it if you’re interested in learning more.

The authors pointed out that projects with a well-defined sense of place are most effective at connecting with two important audiences—they tap into citizen scientists’ motivations to contribute to their own local community, and they also connect more effectively with stakeholders and policymakers because they’ve been developed with the community’s specific needs in mind. As a side benefit, studies show that participants in projects with a strong sense of place are more likely to engage in advocacy and community-building in other aspects of their life as well.

Fostering a Sense of Place

So, what’s a citizen science program to do? It’s clear that building close, place-based partnerships with communities will make successful conservation outcomes more likely…so how to go about strengthening a sense of place?

Newman and coauthors suggest several practical ideas, which vary a bit depending on the scale of the citizen science project.

For smaller-scale, local citizen science projects that take place in one defined area, it’s a little easier to foster a sense of place. Many of the suggestions for building a sense of place in local citizen science boil down to actively listening to community members and stakeholders and empowering community members to shape the project to meet their needs. For instance, the New Hampshire Loon Preservation Committee grew out of a community’s desire to investigate the declining population of the common loon in its lakes, and has since developed into a network of over 1500 volunteers that played a critical role in passing the state’s Loon Recovery Plan. In another example, Norway’s Nature in Change program combines a citizen science treeline mapping project with stories and historical photographs contributed by long-time residents to document climate-driven changes in treeline in a way that packs a greater emotional punch than could be achieved with quantitative data alone.

The New Hampshire Loon Preservation Committee grew out of a community’s desire to investigate a local population decline of the common loon, and resulted in legislation to protect the loon. (Image credit: Nicole Beaulac, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

For larger citizen science projects that are widely distributed, sometimes even global, it can be harder to stay rooted in a sense of place. Nevertheless, some large citizen science projects manage this quite successfully. iNaturalist, for example, leverages its mapping platform, its ‘projects’ function, and the social connections built between users to provide a local experience for users in spite of its overall global reach. And iNaturalist makes its data available to a variety of local end users by making it easily searchable, standardized, and accessible through GBIF. As demonstrated by iNaturalist, the best way for large citizen science programs to build a strong sense of place may be through flexibility, by building an infrastructure that can be utilized in different ways based on the needs of volunteers and data users in different places.

Finally, at all scales and for all types of conservation-related citizen science projects, Newman and colleagues recommend actively building a sense of community among project participants. The most successful conservation citizen science projects feel personal and connected to participants’ own experiences with their environment, and they have the power to bring researchers, community members, and decision makers together with a common goal of enacting positive change.

This month on Ecology for the Masses, we’re celebrating Citizen Science month with a series of different articles highlighting different aspects of citizen science. Check out some of them below.

What Does Citizen Science Mean to You?

10 Great SciComm Twitter Games To Brighten Your Quarantine

Placing a Camera Trap for Beginners in 5 Easy Steps

Caitlin Mandeville is a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology studying conservation applications of citizen science species occurrence data. You can read about her research here and see more of her writing for Ecology for the Masses at her profile here.

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