Citizen scientists now do more than collect data

Training, modeling tools, and an online portal let citizen scientists make an impact on conservation, new research shows.

With these factors in place, citizen scientists can follow scientific-based practices to improve environmental decision-making and even secure funding to help solve environmental problems, say the researchers.

“The nature of citizen science is changing; citizens aren’t simply used solely for data collection,” says Steven Gray, assistant professor of community sustainability at Michigan State University and the study’s lead author. “They are designing the protocols, conducting the experiments, securing funding, and implementing the plans.

“They may not have the credentials of scientists, but they have the capacity to engage in the same approaches.”

For example, a community group in Virginia had concerns over the water quality of a stream that ran through agricultural land. They wanted to measure the benefits of fencing that kept cattle from wallowing in the stream. Using Mental Modeler, special online software pioneered at Michigan State, the group came up with a sensible solution to reduce water pollution.

As part of the study, the Virginian community group also used a citizen science web portal, Collaborative Science, developed with partners at Rutgers University and Colorado State University. This combination allowed the group to work with scientists and other stakeholders to define the issue as well as model and represent assumptions, evidence, and existing information surrounding the problem.

The end result saw landowners work with the local soil and water conservation district to secure funding for four miles of fencing and three wells, which act as buffers between the cattle and the stream. The team effort dramatically reduced water pollution, specifically E. coli contamination.

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Collaborative Science project was designed to work with CitSci.org, which was developed at Colorado State and has helped nearly 340 projects and around 2,600 members.

In an open, transparent environment, everyone involved in the project can discuss potential research or management options and, together, develop citizen scientific research and conservation plans.

“With these online tools, we’re helping people tackle problems just as an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, biologists, and economists would assess environmental issues,” says Gray, who’s with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We are helping to collectively bring everything in; our software is helping this happen.”

There are myriad examples of how this software and this approach can be used. Wildlife biologists could team with hunters to help solve wolf- or deer-management issues; trout fishermen could work with ecologists, geologists, and economists to address fracking activity and the impact on stream health; farmers could partner with entomologists to test vegetation proposals that attract beneficial bugs to a region; and many, many more.

“The opportunities to use this software are truly endless,” Gray says. “This helps everyone in identifying the multitude of facets involved in an issue and to run ‘what-if’ scenarios to see how the system, whatever it may be, reacts to changes.”

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And in the case of the Virginia environmental group, allows everyone to contribute to a viable solution that benefits the environment.

Researchers from Colorado State University, Rutgers University, Virginia Polytechnic University, Indiana University, and the Center for Open Science contributed to this research, which appears in the journal Biological Conservation.

Gray created Mental Modeler through funding from the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. The National Science Foundation funded the research.

Source: Michigan State University

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Source: Futurity