Last weekend I attended the Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference. It was the first conference of its kind and was billed as a workshop that was part of the Ecological Society of America rather than its own separate event, but it was fantastic! There were about 300 people there – not bad for a first attempt at a meeting like this. Those 300 people were the most open, social, wonderfully supportive people I’ve ever encountered at a conference too. They were genuinely interested in everything presented at the meeting, be it a talk or a poster. I came home feeling so good about what I’ve done and with a ton of new ideas for the future. That’s exactly how I want to feel when I leave a conference, but that doesn’t always end up being the case.
I learned a lot of great things while I was at PPSR. Here are 5 random facts I came home with:
Wisconsin has an extensive citizen-based environmental monitoring program.
If you’ve never done a citizen science project, you might not understand how it feels when someone tells you that your data isn’t reliable because it wasn’t collected by trained professionals. There is a fair amount of resistance to citizens performing real, rigorous scientific data collection among the scientific community. In my experience, this seems to be particularly strong amongst the state agencies that monitor land use, water quality, or air quality. Citizens are more than capable of collecting this sort of data with the proper training, but these agencies are often unwilling to train people because they don’t believe that citizens can contribute anything worthwhile. Learning that Wisconsin has a successful, HUGE citizen based monitoring program was fantastic! That’s a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned and I hope other states take notice. There are great things happening in Wisconsin!
One citizen science program collects stories from fishermen for use in phenology studies.
Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal cycles and their relationship to climate and weather. Tracking the phenology of aquatic insect emergences can provide valuable information about the quality of a stream or changes in the climate. River’s Calendar is a citizen science project that takes advantage of a great group of people who are out in the field often and pay close attention to which insects are emerging from a stream at any given time: fishermen! Fishermen who participate in the project send in information about the aquatic insects they see in the areas where they fish and help track the phenology of several insect species over a large area. The project is just getting started as far as I can tell, but I think this is a brilliant idea. I hope the project is successful!
FoldIt users have solved protein folding problems that have stumped scientists for years.
FoldIt is a citizen science project disguised as a fun game! Players go through a series of tutorials and then dive right into the world of protein folding. They do a few things as they play – fold proteins based on genetic codes or code the genetics that create a particular protein shape. They’re solving real problems too! And, by crowd sourcing these tasks in the game, the project developers have accomplished some amazing things. The thing I was most impressed with: FoldIt players determined the structure of the protein that causes AIDS in rhesus monkeys, a problem that scientists spent years trying to work out, in something like three weeks. Amazing!
Native Americans are an excellent source of ecological and environmental information.
There were talks by both a Native American and a scientist who works with Native Americans at the meeting. It seems obvious now that I think about it, but both speakers promoted working with Native Americans to benefit from their long-term knowledge of the environment in the areas where they live. It makes total sense. Native Americans are attached to their environment in a way most other Americans will never be and have a history of storytelling that allows them to develop a great cultural memory. I might never have an opportunity to talk to a Native American while in the pursuit of science, but I hope that more of the partnerships between the tribes and scientists that the two speakers described will continue.
Smart phone apps are a fantastic tool for citizen science!
There still aren’t a ton of smart phone citizen science apps available (apparently a lack of scientist technical experience plagues many citizen science projects), but boy are they useful! There were a couple of people from OPAL in the UK at the meeting and showed me their iPhone app for their Bug Count. It was great! People can upload photos with GPS information attached the moment they see an insect – so easy! The possibilities for what can be done with smart phones are pretty impressive, and definitely something I want to look into getting involved in in the future.
One of the things that everyone discussed at the meeting was the possibility of making an official society for citizen science and having an annual meeting. After attending this meeting, I really hope it happens! The feeling of camaraderie among the attendees and the truly collaborative feel of it all were awesome to experience. I can’t wait to do it again!