Citizen Science

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Citizen science

Becoming a Citizen Scientist, according to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, can be as simple as glancing periodically at your backyard bird feeder, or as complicated as getting out in the field, collecting data about the relationship between an environments characteristics and the success of bird-nesting in that milieu. Put simply, citizen science is the practice of involving individual citizens, through their voluntary efforts, in the work of environmental science . Such voluntary assistance encompasses a wide variety of environmentally-related issues and projects, including the counting of various species of bird, monitoring rainfall amounts, or observing and surveying the habits of threatened species of wildlife . The goal of all environmental science, whether performed by private citizens or environmental scientists, is the same: to provide for the health of the planet, its natural resources , and all living beings.

John Fein, an internationally-renowned science educator, and associate professor at Griffith University (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia ), described this participatory process as one that can "bridge the gap between science and the community and between scientific research and policy, decision-making and planning." "Bridging these gaps," he went on to note, "involves a process of social learning through sound environmental research, full public participation, the adoption of adaptive management practices and the development of the democratic values, skills and institutions for an active civil society."

In the United States, citizen science began in the 1800s, and became more formalized in 1886, when the National Audubon Society was created. According to its preamble, the societys aim was to: promote the conservation of wildlife and the natural environment, and educate man regarding his relationship with, and place within, the natural environment as an ecological system. Public awareness of environmental concerns increased with the first Earth Day in 1970. The significance of Earth Day has served as a reminder to the world community that it is not only the scientists who are responsible for the health of the environment . The general public, each individual, has been given the challenge to take measures large or small that might add up to an enormous improvement in the ecological scheme of life.

Today there are so many citizen science projects initiated by various environmental organizations that it would be impossible to list all of them. However, some of the better known include:

  • The Christmas Bird Count, the oldest citizen science project in existence, according to the National Audubon Society. It occurs on a daily basis across the United States between December 14th and January 5th each year. Until the recent era of the home computer, it had been the practice for groups to go on birding outings, "into nature" in order to do the count.
  • The Great Backyard Bird Count, occurring for three days commencing on Valentine Day involves volunteers counting the birds visiting in their backyards or in nearby parks, and entering the data into their computers. This count is then analyzed and becomes available information to the bird counters" through tables, maps, and in other forms. The director of the Audubon Society in 2002, Frank Gill, worked in coordinated effort with Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in order to calculate the results.
  • Project Feeder Watch, a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders in backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales that takes place November through March.
  • The Birdhouse Networkinvolving the installation of bird houses with volunteers monitoring bird activity throughout the breeding season, collecting data on location, habitat characteristics, nestings and the number of eggs produced.
  • Project Pigeon Watch, counting the number of each different color, recording the colors of courting birds, and helping scientists determine the mystery of why there are so many different colors of pigeons.
  • House Finch Disease Surveythe monitoring of backyard feeders, reporting presence or absence of House Finch eye disease.
  • Birds in Forested Landscapesstudy sites established in forests of varying sizes with volunteers counting the birds during at least two visits (using recordings of vocalizations), and searching for markers that breeding was successful, recording landscape characteristics of the site;
  • Golden-winged Warbler Projectthe study to survey and conduct point counts at known and potential breeding sites of this bird, using both professionals and volunteers;
  • Citizen Science in the Schoolyardprojects in elementary and middle schools that educate children in various aspects of bird-watching and counting;
  • BirdSourcean interactive online database operated in conjunction with the Audubon Society collecting information from numerous projects.
  • Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program, an ongoing project with volunteers through the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, with observation of the common loon as well as the annual count that occurs every July.
  • The Mid-Atlantic Integrated Assessment (MAIA). A research, monitoring, and assessment initiative under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency , in order to provide high-quality scientific information on the condition of natural resources of the Mid-Atlantic region of the east coast, including the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, Albemarle-Pamlico Sound, and the Delmarva Coastal Bays, utilizing professional researchers and volunteers.
  • Smithsonian Neighborhood Nest-watch. Utilizing backyard bird counters during breeding season to assist the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in gathering scientific data on various birds.
  • Citizen Collaborative for Watershed Sustainability. A project conducted within the Southeast Minnesota Bluff-lands region, and coordinating with other farming regions across the state, in order to conserve the watersheds of southeastern Minnesota.
  • Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. A citizen-based project to monitor streams and rivers, determining the chemical, physical, and biological health of the water.

Citizen science projects such as these have provided information used in decision-making resulting in the purchasing of lands that host certain threatened species during breeding time and the development of bird population management guidelines. Further, data obtained from these surveys is often published in scientific and educational journals.

Citizens respond

The "explosion" of popularity and participation in citizen science has been a welcome development. Both the United Nations and individual national governments have become involved, sponsoring events such as the planned 2002 U.N. global summit scheduled for Johannesburg, South Africa, between August 26th and September 4th, 2002 to examine poverty, development, and the environment.

For citizens unaware of environmental issues, it appears that more information and publicity is necessary. In an article for the Environmental News Network (ENN) in October 2001, Erica Gies states, "As a person who cares about environmental issues, I often find myself preaching to the choir. But when I have an opportunity to converse with people who are either uninformed or inclined to disagree, it can be difficult to communicate my passion effectively without alienating them, especially if they are people I have a long history with, such as family." To attain that goal of increasing awareness, Gies suggests using art, literature and the media. There are a variety of nonfiction books and essays, poetry; art, and music featuring environmental or nature themes, as well as the films focusing on environmental issues featured each spring at an Environmental Film Festival held in Washington, D.C. But even a comic strip can give an ecological focus. Gies quotes Dilbert creator, Scott Adams from his book, The Dilbert Future irreverently noting that, "The children are our future. And that is why, ultimately, we're screwed unless we do something about it. If you haven't noticed, the children who are our future are good looking but they aren't all that bright. As dense as they might be, they will eventually notice that adults have spent all the money, spread disease, and turned the planet into a smoky, filthy ball of death."

David Suzuki also offered his insights into the challenges facing the environment in an article for ENN in June 2002. Enumerating the biggest challenges for the environment in the next century, Suzuki noted, "I'm beginning to think one of the biggest challenges is overcoming the fact that people are tired of all the depressing news about the environment." Citizen science was offering a solution for positive approaches and answers to these issues, giving the public a reason to be hopeful and cherish their involvement in seeing things change. One such person, Robert Boyle, of Cold Spring, NY and author of the 1969 book, The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History continued his struggle for 30 years after the publication of his book alerting people to the decay of the Hudson River . His book was the waterways equivalent of the Silent Spring (Rachel Carson's book that alerted the public to the danger of pesticides and was responsible for much of the environmental movement of the 1960s). Boyles book was instrumental in beginning the process of cleaning up not only the Hudson River, but all other polluted waterways across the United States. In 2002, Boyle continued to fight major industrial polluters and the government in courts in his effort to preserve the natural bounty of the Hudson River.

[Joan M. Schonbeck ]



Adirondack Cooperative Loon Project. 2002 Annual Census. [cited June 2002]. <>

Citizen Collaborative for Watershed Sustainability. About the Citizen Collaborative. [cited June 2002]. <>

Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. A Volunteer opportunity for citizens to monitor wadeable streams and rivers. 1998 [cited 2002]. <>

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "Citizen Science." What We Do. [cited June 2002]. <>

Environmental Protection Agency.Mid-Atlantic Integrated Assessment. May 15, 2002. <>

Fein, John; Tim Smith; and, James Whelan. Cooperative Research Centre for Coastal Zone, Estuary and Waterway Management. "Citizen Science and EducationTheme 2." January 3, 2002. <>

Gies, Erica. Environmental News Network. "Responses to 'Fun literary strategies for environmental debate' An ENN perspective." October 12, 2001. <>

Gorman, James. "Naturalists share their findings online." New York Times/on the web. December 13, 2001.

Kansas State University. Citizen Science. "Links to help you participate in scientific ornithological research." [cited June 2002]. <>

Los Alamos. Citizen-Based Science: Collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Volunteer Task Force. [cited June 2002]. <>

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Avian Ecology. "Neighborhood Nestwatch." [cited June 2002]. <>

Stoddard, Ed. Reuters. "Planet's health source of much debate." April 19, 2002. <>

Suzuki, David. Environmental News Network. "Time to pull our heads out of the sand." June 13, 2002. <>

University of Massachusetts. About the Ecological Cities Project. March 15, 2002. <>

Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Citizen Science. [cited June 2002]. <>

Virtanen, Michael. Associated Press. "At age 73, advocate refuses to quit fight to keep the Hudson River free of pollution." March 22, 2002. <>


Cornell Lab of Ornithology, P. O. Box 11, Ithaca, NY USA 14851 Toll Free: (800) 843-2473, <>

The Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, P. O. Box 897, Tupper Lake, NY USA 12986 (518) 359-2533, Fax: (518) 523-9841, <>

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, 647 Contees Wharf Road, Edgewater, MD USA 21037 (443) 482-2200, Fax: (443) 482-2380, <>

Citizen Science

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Citizen Science

If asked to picture a scientist, most people probably would imagine a professional peering into a microscope or poring over statistics on a computer screen. Science does not belong solely to such professionals, however. Ordinary citizens from all walks of life have a huge stake in science and technology as well, which can both enrich their lives with new discoveries and damage their world with pollution. Citizen science is a movement that recognizes the contribution which such concerned citizens can make to scientific policy and research, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

Several high-profile court cases have proved the power of citizen science. For example, it was citizen volunteers in Woburn, Massachusetts, who gathered data about the unusually large number of area children stricken with leukemia, a cancer of the blood-forming cells. The efforts of these volunteers led to a trial, where two large corporations were accused of polluting the town's water, which was thought to have played a role in the children's illness. The trial, in turn, inspired a best-selling book by Jonathan Harr and a popular movie starring John Travolta, both titled A Civil Action.

Another famous example of citizen science is less controversial, but just as powerful in its own way. In 1900 the National Audubon Society launched its Christmas Day Bird Count, in which amateur birdwatchers were asked to tally and report the number of birds they spotted on one day. The first year, twenty-seven people took part. Today, this event, the longest-running of all citizen science projects, attracts more than 50,000 participants. Several other large-scale bird counts have started as well. These projects help scientists spot local changes in bird populations, which may signal an environmental threat, such as groundwater pollution or poisoning from the improper use of pesticides.

Some citizen science programs enlist people of all ages to help with the hands-on collection of technical data. For example, Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) is a program that has involved more than one million elementary through high school students in the United States and one hundred other countries. The students learn to take accurate measurements of the air, water, soil, and vegetation in their area. They then share their data via the Internet. Scientists, in turn, use the measurements to improve their understanding of the global environment.

Although GLOBE is sponsored by the U.S. government, many citizen science programs grow out of grassroots organizations. For example, it is estimated that over 550,000 people in the United States are involved in monitoring rivers in their area. The River Watch Program is a national organization that provides training and support to local groups working to protect and restore their rivers. As these examples show, individuals do not need lab coats, fancy equipment, or a big research budget to make very real and important contributions to environmental science.

see also Activism; Cancer; Earth Day; Environmental Movement.


Harr, Jonathan. (1996). A Civil Action. New York: Vintage Books.

Internet Resources

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of State. "Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE)." Available from

National Audubon Society and Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. "BirdSource." Available from

River Network. "River Watch Program." Available from

Linda Wasmer Andrews

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