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Why citizen science may shine, even in Trump’s world

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

As we brace for fresh environmental onslaughts to be leveled by the incoming administration, a sleeper cell in the federal government itself may just provide resistance—and even resilience—in the face of it.

On November 15, 2016, members of a 300-plus member grassroots “Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science” met at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (the Wilson Center) to discuss transition strategies upon the changing of the guard. Surprisingly, they were not depressed.

Interest in citizen science in the ranks of federal employees has been building since at least 2009, when a White House memo on transparency seeded the idea of opening up government data to the public by way of digital infrastructure. The digitally-networked, data-intensive nature of citizen science seemed to fit this mode. As defined by the eventual federal community convening around it, “citizen science mobilizes the public to engage in scientific processes to address real world problems.” while “crowdsourding is a process of obtaining data service and ideas especially from online communities.”

The numbers put up by the citizen science community thus far are impressive. eBird, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has involved thousands of people in recording the who, what, when, and where of birds across the world. It’s now amassed almost 300 million observations of our feathered friends. Numbers like this are statistically significant and trounce any error impacts. They help create a map of where birds are doing well and where they are declining, which in turns helps direct conservation action.

Building on this momentum, in 2015, US Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) spoke on the senate floor about using citizen science and crowdsourcing “to advance and accelerate scientific research, literacy, and diplomacy.” In 2016, John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, exhorted federal agencies to use citizen science. And the White House itself launched citizenscience.gov, which includes a toolkit and a map of federally-supported projects across agencies with widely disparate missions, from NASA to DOI.

Sounds like just the sort of progressive initiatives the new administration will want to gut. However, two important factors will militate against the possibility. One: too many people are doing citizen science to put the kibosh on it. And two: citizen science is actually a tool for getting government work done for less money and with more community buy-in. Republicans might just like it.

At the transition strategy meeting in November, David Rajeski, global fellow with Wilson’s Science and Technology Innovation Program, put it this way: “There are tens of thousands of people who participate in this, and that’s a fascinating leverage point.” He referenced the maker space, grassroots activists, university professors working to codify citizen science as an academic discipline, and thousands of plain old regular people engaged in a collective effort to address real world problems with open-source data collection. Few strategic initiatives in Washington have the same kind of distributed support, Rajeski remarked.

While citizen science is not free—it takes money and personnel to train and sustain volunteer workers—it greatly expands the carrying capacity of agencies. Citizen science facilitates the missions of often resource-limited federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Among other initiatives, citizens have been volunteering on BLM projects in the La Cienegas National Conservation Area near Tucson, Arizona, since the 1980s. Karen Simms, Manager of La Cienegas, said that members of the public come out and help monitor some of the last remaining native grasslands in the state (and probably the Southwest) every October and November. They also assist in so-called “wet dry” walks on creeks, helping to map surface water during the driest part of the year. Citizen monitoring helps determine natural resource management that in some places allows historical livestock grazing to co-exist on protected land. Thus it is helping address not just nature’s problems, but also community and business issues.

Citizen science is not always dependent on technology, but because it works so well with a digital infrastructure, one of its great utilities is in networking disparate efforts. Right now, as individuals and in local communities, we can monitor and evaluate biodiversity, water, and air quality. Those data can be used to visualize environmental impacts to help garner public support for legislative initiatives at the local and regional levels. As a networking phenomenon, citizen science is poised to continue to grow—and to have impact—with or without federal support.

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Mary Ellen Hannibal is an award-winning journalist and author. Her most recent book, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, was named one of the best nonfiction titles of 2016 by the San Francisco Chronicle.

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