The benefits of citizen science

Author: Lucy Hollingsworth, NPAQ industry placement student (University of Queensland)

Photography: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons

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Encouraging our urbanised population to connect (or re-connect) with nature is one of the most effective means of changing people’s perception and encourages an appreciation for protected areas such as national parks.

Citizen science initiatives provide the ideal chance for people to get involved directly with conservation and through doing so gain a greater understanding and respect for it. 

Citizen science also enables members of the public a great opportunity to work closely with scientists on important scientific projects which benefit the wider community.

Many Australians cherish their environment, as we are so fortunate to be surrounded by such rich biodiversity at every turn. As such, currently about 130,000 Australians are active in more than 90 citizen science projects, predominantly in environmental science fields. 

 

There are many benefits of citizen science programs, including the vital contribution to the growth of Australia, and the protection of its unique fauna and flora as well as tangible advantages gained for the research community, individuals and society. 

 

Many kinds of organisations are also involved, including universities, all levels of government, schools, industry groups, community groups and museums. Hence, a range of people - those with little prior knowledge of Australian wildlife to experienced amateur naturalists - are all making a difference to the environment around them.

The diversity of the projects and sheer amount of data that can be collected through these projects, provide observational records that could otherwise not be achieved by a single scientist, or small study team, which are subject to time and funding constraints. 

It is also crucial in the face of a fast-paced changing climate, that everyone be involved in citizen science projects. In this way mega-data can be collected and analysed so that adaptive mitigation responses can be formed and we can (hopefully) avoid complete disaster. 

It also aids scientific research greatly, especially where development springs up in the blink of an eye before studies can be completed. For example, a koala search in South Australia conducted by more than 500 people managed to record 1500 sightings in a single day as part of The Great Koala Count. This enabled researchers to develop a model of koala distributions from the spatial data collected.

Such an undertaking would otherwise have taken months to complete by a small research team. 

There are many benefits of citizen science programs, including the vital contribution to the growth of Australia, and the protection of its unique fauna and flora as well as tangible advantages gained for the research community, individuals and society. 

Citizen science is a way to further increase a person’s exposure to the natural world, and through this, manifest a deeper appreciation and sense of belonging to something greater. 

When the Australian Conservation Foundation asked readers to participate in a survey, inquiring whether they would rather be a part of a movement, a team, a network or a community, the majority vote was to be a part of a community.

There is no better community than one that is environmentally conscious through involvement with citizen science projects.

Citizen science provides new information to protected area managers and decision-makers, through highlighting issues such as; pest and disease outbreaks, pollution breaches or the discovery of new species. 

It also creates a greater understanding of science principles, increasing education which leads to the development of new skills, and helps the research community gain an increased scale of data collection and access to resources such as private land. 

One citizen science project of great success in protected areas is that of the Eye on the Reef monitoring and assessment program run by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

The Great Barrier Reef is an extensive ecosystem and is one of Australia’s most obviously and disastrously affected by climate change. Extensive research is conducted for mitigation control, but it is impossible to cover such a vast and complex area. 

The Eye on the Reef program encourages and provides every visitor - there were more than 2.6 million in 2016 - the opportunity to aid in data collection and analysis, subsequently, contributing to the Reef’s long-term protection. 

The program provides different opportunities depending on skill levels and commitment. For example, more experienced reef users with more time might be involved in underwater monitoring to record specific reef health observations which can be uploaded online, while any regular tourist can easily download the app and report their sightings while aboard a glass-bottom boat tour.

All data is then combined into one data management and reporting system which informs marine park managers and researchers of up-to-date information regarding reef health, trends and distribution of important species.

Another recent citizen science expedition with encouraging outcomes occurred on Fraser Island in December 2016 organised by the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO). It was the largest biological stocktake to be undertaken in a World Heritage-listed site.

The Bio-blitz involved more than 40 scientists, with supporting citizens from all over Australia spending a week photographing, documenting, catching and releasing Fraser Island’s plants and animals. 

The primary aim of the expedition was to create a database but the team also ended up identifying numerous new species, not believed to have been documented before.

Not only is citizen science benefiting scientific research it also enriches human wel-lbeing by acting as an experience to further encourage people into national Pprks and other protected areas. 

With the majority of Queensland’s population residing in cities and highly urban areas our children are spending more and more of their down time indoors. 

This brings to life new terms such as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ and the ‘Extinction of Experience’ which describes how more people, especially children and teenagers, are losing touch with their surrounding natural environment. 

An active connection with nature provides a way to address a range of health issues, and Queensland’s parks and forests provide unlimited citizen science opportunities to encourage this connection. 

What better way to get young boys and girls out and away from that computer screen then with the prospect of helping save the world? 

We are in the centre of a phase in history where every single human being should understand how they impact the Earth. Individuals alone cannot solve the pollution and extinction crisis, but perhaps if we work together as a mobilised and organised community, we might just create the change we wish to see in this world.
 

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This article was first published in Issue 13 of the National Parks Association of Queensland (NPAQ) bi-monthly magazine, Protected (February-March 2017)