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Digging science: Citizens amplify knowledge about the natural world

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Photo: Mount Rainier National Park/flickr

One of this year's most popular Sundance Film Festival entries, Tangerine, was shot with an iPhone 5S and edited with an $8 app called Filmic Pro. New technology has also made music easier to produce and distribute, inspiring independent musicians. Science, too, is now in the hands of citizens around the world. From the ocean depths to the outer reaches of distant galaxies, and from projects run out of home garages to research platforms with over a million volunteer contributors, science has never been more accessible to the average person. Citizen science can link people to an established project or encourage those working on their own.

We're on the cusp of a major revolution in the way we approach environmental science. In February, a water sample showed that the first trace amounts of ocean-borne radioactive contamination from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster reached North American shores. The sample wasn't taken from an oceanographic vessel. It was collected in a 20-litre sample bottle from the public dock in Ucluelet, B.C., by a class of Grade 5 and 6 girls participating in a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution project that connects concerned citizens from North American communities around the Pacific shores. A decade ago, this type of organizing and sample-taking by engaged citizens would have been inconceivable.

Along with valuable scientific information, citizen scientists also provide significant economic support to science. A paper in the journal Biological Conservation estimates that citizen science has contributed billions of dollars of in-kind funding and even exceeded most government-funded studies over a larger area and longer time period.

Glen Dennison, an electronic technologist during the week and recreational diver and deep-sea researcher in his time off, offers an example of this new way to conduct science. He's been in B.C.'s Howe Sound mapping sponge reefs nearly every weekend over the past five years, using his own underwater sonar mapping equipment and homemade sewer pipe cameras (cameras housed in a pipe that can be dropped up to 300 metres to the seafloor). Were the government to undertake this work, it could cost thousands of dollars a day for vessel time and salaries. With assistance from his daughter and a grad student, Dennison has contributed more than $100,000 of his own time and resources to this project. Government researchers have used his maps to better manage sensitive marine ecosystems.

Citizen science is growing in leaps and bounds. Recently, NatureWatch revamped its website and its popular WormWatch, FrogWatch, PlantWatch and IceWatch programs. For the first time in NatureWatch's 15-year history, people can use phones or tablets to record, submit and view data. Environmental monitoring is happening as people walk to work, go on vacation or even play golf. You never know when you'll find a frog in a water hazard!

NatureWatch's website walks people new to science through everything they need to know. Like the girls in Ucluelet, you could even make a scientific discovery. Amateur bee observers participating in the American BeeSpotter program identified bee species thought to have disappeared in some areas. You don't even need to live in the area you're observing to record scientific data. A Minnesota-based volunteer recorded, for the first time ever, a major migration of deep-sea crabs on Canada's West Coast by reviewing underwater video footage online as part of a program run by Ocean Networks Canada in Victoria.

Just as people who learn first aid are not substitutes for paramedics and doctors, citizen science should never be a justification for cutting government science spending. Governments in countries like the U.S. are funding citizen science programs to amplify the effectiveness of government science programs. The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration facilitates 65 citizen science programs alone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency runs dozens of programs in areas ranging from water quality to air pollution monitoring.

Many citizen science programs are based on the simple notion that more eyes lead to better findings. Whether taking pictures of frogs, recording the state of the ice on a local pond or viewing underwater footage taken from the sea floor, citizen science is making a great contribution to Canada's scientific knowledge. We're just beginning to realize the full potential of using technology to connect curiosity and concern for the planet with meaningful scientific pursuits.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Research Scientist Scott Wallace.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Photo: Mount Rainier National Park/flickr

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