‘Citizen Science’ is also described by terms including Community Science or Crowd Science, and certainly isn’t limited to STEM with similar principles applicable to projects in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and community and heritage projects.

The University of Leeds is exploring ‘Citizen Science’ as part of a co-production model to support an inclusive fair and sustainable research culture. In June, we were very pleased to welcome two speakers to discuss the practice of Citizen Science in a specific discipline and how we can better support this type of activity.

You can watch a full recording on YouTube:

The word “science” originally came from the Latin word scientia which meant knowledge, a knowing, expertness, or experience. By the late 14th century, science meant, in English, collective knowledge…it has consistently carried the meaning of being a socially embedded activity: people seeking, systematising and sharing knowledge.

The weighty history and meaning behind the word ‘science’ (The Conversation)

Kirsty Wallis is Head of Research Liaison at UCL where she heads up the Office for Open Science & Scholarship. Open Science at UCL is based on the LERU (League of European Research Universities) 8 Pillars of Open Science, and Kirsty began by emphasising that in Europe ‘open science’ is more inclusive than it implies in the UK (despite the etymology), covering Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences as well as the Natural Sciences.

Slide about the Office for Open Science & Scholarship illustrating the LERU 8 Pillars of Open Science: Future of scholarly comms, Next generation metrics, Education & skills, European open science cloud, FAIR data, Citizen Science, Rewards & Initiatives, Research Integrity

UCL have applied their own definitions to the Eight Pillars make them as broad as possible. Next generation metrics encompasses the responsible use of metrics for instance, but also considers new ways of measuring the success of research. Education and skills, and Rewards and initiatives together are about ensuring that people have the right skills and are rewarded appropriately to undertake the activity of open science. The European Open Science Cloud is a, now global, infrastructure project to link together repository and related services for open data and open code, and Research integrity includes ethics, and good practice to ensure reproducible and transparent research.

It is Kirsty and the Office’s job to support the internal UCL community to adopt open practices and approaches. They are very conscious of the need to be inclusive, to ensure that researchers are able to engage with open science in a meaningful way for their disciplinary context. An historian or someone in the arts & humanities will interact with openness very differently than someone in the hard sciences.

Before delving into their specific support for Citizen Science, Kirsty highlighted the Office’s operational plan, publicly available on their website.

Of 15 objectives, 4 relate explicitly to Citizen Science, including that the Office represents a central point of contact for Citizen Science activity across UCL. A lot of work has already been done to identify and promote existing projects and has recently recruited a Citizen Science Coordinator who will work to establish a set of best practice guidelines.

Citizen Science at UCL

Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) is based in the department of Geography at UCL and is headed by Professor Muki Haklay who is a well know voice in Citizen Science

The Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) is also based at UCL with an interesting remit to work with both the local area around UCL – Bloomsbury and Camden – as well as a lot of work in Lebanon.

Through the UCL Citizen Science working group, the IGP have helped to support the UCL Citizen Science Academy which in turn is working with local councillors in Camden to train local people in the tools and techniques to participate in CS projects. UCL is developing a ‘kite mark’ rating for local people to gain accreditation through the Academy that can help with employment or to join different projects.

Kirsty emphasised that the point of open science is to get research out of the university, to local people and the world, to democratise access to knowledge. Citizen Science takes this principle a step further by encouraging local people to participate directly and bring their own ideas and perspectives to their local university and its research.

Citizen Science in Biodiversity Research

Next we were given a disciplinary specific perspective from Dr Chris Hassall, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Leeds.

In addition to using Citizen Science techniques in his research, Chris also uses its principles in his teaching, though doesn’t necessarily delve into the philosophy of the approach as discussed by Kirsty, and simply uses it as a valuable research tool.

Chris would talk to us almost exclusively about insects and how entomologists use CS techniques to understand the ecology and evolution of insects. One of the primary challenges is trying to understand the enormous diversity of insects, the complex factors that are threatening their populations and the geographical scale.

There are two to three million species of insects distributed around almost the entire globe, with the partial exception of most of Antarctica, though there are now invasive colonies of insects even there. In order to understand these large scale and complex patterns it is necessary to recruit skilled people to help collect data.

In the context of biodiversity, says Chris, it is often the citizen scientists themselves who can be more skilled in biodiversity research, with relatively uninformed academics posing a fundamental scientific question, and reaching out to a largely amateur biodiversity community to make use of the high quality data they collect.

Conventional approaches to biodiversity monitoring can leave a lot to be desired. Many methods are not necessarily much more advanced than the Victorian gentleman (centre middle at the bottom) using an umbrella to catch bugs that he has dislodged from a plant.

Techniques vary in complexity, but even the most high-tech don’t enable scientists to sample the environment at the scale needed to detect and diagnose problems in the environment. Inevitably there is a huge amount of heterogeneity in results. A recent meta-analysis that tried to combine results from different techniques, looking at different insect groups across different countries, found considerable variation…so rather than actually clarifying the situation there is a danger that professional entomologists, with their limited capacity, will tend to just muddy the waters. When it comes to understanding long-term trends in insect populations it is citizen scientists who have come to the rescue!

The butterfly monitoring scheme – now merged with another project as the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) – has been running since 1976 and works as a community of citizen scientists across two and a half thousand sites annually. Each year they will walk those sites weekly, covering 1-1.5 KM per site…so they’ve walked nearly a million kilometers by now and recorded approximately 8 million butterflies. Results are standardised and have been incorporated into the UK government’s biodiversity indicator portfolio. While some of the citizen scientists working on the project will be entomologists like Chris, the vast majority are amateur enthusiasts who are nevertheless highly skilled and committed to the cause.

Chris and colleagues are currently trying to set up several similar projects. The UK pollinator monitoring scheme is has been through its pilot phase and is being rolled out in the UK and across Europe. In that case, rather than walking for a kilometer through the natural environment to record butterflies, a citizen scientist would stop at a patch of flowers and count the number of insects that visit those flowers over a period of 10 minutes. This should provide a lot more detail about pollinators at a large scale.

Some citizen science projects around entomology have been less well received with a project on wasps for example asking citizen scientists to collect wasps using beer traps. People didn’t necessarily like the idea of sending in large numbers of dead insects in the name of conserving those same insects, which generated some negative headlines and highlights the importance of considering the implications and managing narrative when conceiving a Citizen Science project.

Data parasites?

Chris started started his citizen science career as what some people refer to as a ‘data parasite’ making use of large biological recording data sets like the one produced by the butterfly monitoring scheme. His first paper as a PhD student was trying to use the British Dragonfly Society’s long-term data to examine responses to climate change to explore patterns of phenology i.e. changes in the timing of biological events. At the time, in 2006, there were about 450,000 records, which has now more than tripled in size aand is now well over 1.5 million datapoints.

So as these datasets grow over time they become ever more valuable, and when Chris discovered that these data were available and people didn’t seem to be making as much use of them as they should have, he started doing a lot more analysis using open gateways like the National Biodiversity Network Atlas which represents an attempt to make biodiversity data available to the wider community, not just academics. There is a strong emphasis on democratising the data, ensuring that it’s openly licenced through Creative Commons and ensuring that the data, and the efforts of Citizen Scientists, are surfaced and celebrated.

Finding the hard to find

Using the NBN Atlas and similar platforms around the world, Chris has been able to examine long-term trends that simply can’t be studied by the usual type of scientific project.

One Citizen Science project that has tried to find the ‘hard to find’ for example, looked at the invasive wall lizard in the South of England by going door-to-door asking residents to fill in a postcard if they had seen this particular species around the environment where they lived. They also had an online tool where people could highlight in a participatory GIS format where they had seen the animals and add annotations about their experiences with those animals. They used those data to parameterise very high resolution species distribution models to figure out what might be enabling or preventing the spread of this invasive species through UK towns and cities.

Chris has also been involved in recent work to capture a lot of information in a very short period of time. “Flying ant day” generally happens across a couple of weeks in the Summer and swarms can be spotted on weather radar which have been used to try to quantify their abundance. Really what is required however are citizens on the ground saying “yes these are definitely flying ants” which can be cross-referenced with the radar data as a form of validation.

Citizen Science as a teaching tool

Chris finished by talking about how biology students can arrive at Leeds with very little background knowledge of natural history, and lack many of the necessary field skills when they start. Citizen Science methods can be valuable for introducing them to the environment and so Chris uses a tool we called ArcGIS Survey123 to build a quick app that they can submit sightings through as a sort of ‘bioblitz’ at a local park. This introduces them to the concepts of biodiversity and also generates a spatial data set that they can use in a GIS mapping module.

Chris is also doing some work to standardise techniques to generate better citizen science around dragonfly data and provide guidance to citizens who want to contribute as effectively as they can to the science.

The goal of this type of citizen science is not only good data but also to engage and educate the public about conservation issues.

So now why not go and have a look at the NBN Atlas for your favorite species, then explore a specific location, perhaps your own backgarden, to find out which species might be living there?