Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

How to Recruit 23 Million Scientists

Credit: Stuart Harris

Credit: Stuart Harris

By Carla Sbrocchi, Gretta Pecl, Chris Gillies & Philip Roetman

Partnerships between scientists and everyday Australians are changing the face of scientific discovery and exploration.

David Attenborough is talking about it, Brian Cox is talking about it, and it’s being talked about all across Australia. Citizen science, the process of engaging the public in scientific enquiry, has undergone a renaissance in recent times and is playing a critical role in re-engaging society in the sciences.

The potential for citizen science to unlock public interest in science in Australia is huge. Already there are more than 130,000 Australians active in at least 170 citizen science projects, with the number and scope of projects rapidly increasing.

Citizen science cuts across scientific fields, institutions, governments and demographics. Projects are run by non-Governmental organisations and community groups, as well as organisations like CSIRO, state governments, private foundations, museums and universities – all unlocking Australia’s science potential.

Participation in citizen science has been shown to address environmental issues at many scales, contribute to novel scientific research, improve the skills and knowledge of individuals, increase social networks, and give a voice to underserved individuals and communities.

So how do we harness 23 million Australian brains for exploration and discovery?

Every Australian can participate in activities like counting koalas while bushwalking, reporting unexpected catches on their weekend fishing trips, or classifying distant galaxies on their home computers. Contributions like these have informed conservation strategies, discovered new animal species, played a role in breakthroughs on debilitating diseases, contributed to global weather forecasting and helped to unlock the secrets of the universe.

Technology, especially mobile phones, has aided the renaissance in citizen science, greatly facilitating the collection of scientific data for a wide range of projects with an accuracy and precision not previously possible.

The result of citizen science is often a large number of scientific records that would be virtually impossible to achieve for a small team of scientists, let alone a single scientist. For example, since 1998, 10,000 registered bird observers have contributed 10 million records towards the Atlas of Australian Birds database. More recently, through the National Science Week program Explore the Seafloor, close to 10,000 citizen scientists successfully analysed 330,526 photos of marine habitat within a 1-week period.

Despite a huge body of work documenting the value and quality of the data produced by these so-called amateurs, a perception persists among some professionals that the quality of data is insufficient for most research or decision-making purposes. However, a number of rigorous studies have found that citizen science-collected data are robust and useful for the intended purpose. For example, observations by thousands of enthusiastic birders every year are showing patterns of change in the composition of bird communities across Australia and in other countries. Some of our strongest conclusions about the impacts of climate change on natural ecosystems comes from citizen science data.

There are, however, some caveats that accompany the activation of a network of citizen scientists. Although citizen scientists are capable and willing, they require direction and training and obviously should not be exploited. Participants in projects also require support and motivation to continue their involvement. Although they are often already knowledgeable, they benefit from professional expertise and knowledge to grow their capacity in scientific methods.

One promising development for assisting partnerships between scientists and communities is the recent establishment of the Australian Citizen Science Association, a national community of practice for all types of citizen science within Australia. Equivalent national bodies have already been established in the US and in Europe, and collectively these associations are playing a leading role in coordinating the incredible global growth of citizen science. An inaugural national citizen science conference, held in July this year, received support from the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Academy of Science, demonstrating the high level support and interest in citizen science in Australia.

A report commissioned by the Chief Scientist this year suggests that facilitating the growth of citizen science should focus on:

  • training and the development of standards, so that individuals and organisations have a greater capacity to deliver best-practice citizen science, and provide scientist and participants with guidance on appropriate question selection, project design, methods of volunteer recruitment and engagement, techniques for data capture and analysis, safe practice in the field, communication with community leaders, and project evaluation;
  • improving communication among citizen science projects, host organisations, practitioners and volunteers to limit unnecessary duplication of projects and harness resources more efficiently, particularly within similar organisations such as park agencies, environmental protection authorities, regional and national resource management bodies and local councils. Similarly, a national register of projects (e.g. www.citsci.org or www.scistarter.com) would provide a connecting service to help prospective volunteers discover nearby projects, match scientists to communities, identify data “black spots”, and provide support and training; and
  • developing forums for connecting scientists, educators, government, private industry and the community so that interested parties can connect and work together and address issues of local, state, national and/or global importance.

The increasing quality, affordability and accessibility of citizen science projects is making it easier to realise the potential for all Australians to contribute to science as part of their everyday lives. Hundreds of thousands of Australians are already tapping into the benefits of this partnership, every one of them pushing the boundaries of science and technology.

Imagine where we could be when the rest of Australia comes on board.

Carla Sbrocchi (University of Technology, Sydney), Gretta Pecl (Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Marine Socioecology), Chris Gillies (The Nature Conservancy) and Philip Roetman (University of South Australia) are co-authors of Building Australia Through Citizen Science, an Occasional Paper published by the Office of the Chief Scientist (2015).