THE BLOG
05/09/2014 11:35 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Facts of Life

"What is citizen science?" I'm at my desk in San Francisco, on a conference call. Surrounded by books and papers and a cup of cold coffee, and otherwise writing a book on what some people call "public participation in scientific research." Past my computer screen on the deck outside, a hummingbird zips around a passiflora. I think about going outside to count hummingbirds while I'm on the phone, then figure I'd better wait and do it more carefully. I have had lots of conversations and written lots of overviews and proposals about citizen science for the group I'm talking to, half of whom are in Arizona and half in Washington State. So everybody chuckles a little bit at the question, which comes from Kim Vicariu, a long-time conservation warrior who knows very well that citizen science programs related to biodiversity usually involve counting species of one kind or another. He's asking big picture.

I'm writing a book about citizen science basically because of these people. I reported on their work in my previous book, The Spine of the Continent. While traipsing up and down the Rocky Mountains, pondering the sorry situations of species like pika, wolves, jaguar, sage grouse and aspen, I asked myself: what is working here? Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on conservation every year but nature is still getting completely shafted. These people working for scrappy nonprofits that run on shoe strings are dancing as fast as they can, too. They do the right thing -- they get out there and advocate for nature -- but there aren't enough of them. They are also quite frequently banging their heads against proverbial walls. How can we get more people doing the right thing? How can we reframe the questions of conservation so that attempts at dialog stop slamming into what Anna Quindlan in another context called "a clash of absolutes?" Most of all, how can the art and science of saving nature scale to actual effectiveness?

All over the world, citizen science projects are popping up to help address the trouble we find biodiversity in today. For example, take the Great Sunflower Project. This is something I participate in right on my small deck in the heart of the city of San Francisco. I have opted to not plant a sunflower, which is one way to approach the program, but to simply watch for hummingbirds and bees on my deck for a certain period of time each day. Then I walk back inside and type my data into the website. Yes, anybody can do this. Gretchen LeBuhn, who runs the Great Sunflower Project out of San Francisco State University, says that school kids and older people are big participants. "One woman wrote to me that even though she's in a wheelchair with restricted movement, she can count bees, and it makes her happy to contribute." With the data she's collecting, LeBuhn is able to trace the source of pesticide use that is causing bee die-offs.

One reason I'm writing the book is to help citizen science. The scientists and educators leading citizen science projects rarely have the time or think to explain to people why they are being asked to do what they are being asked to do. Sometimes it's pretty self-evident. I learned to track wildlife in Mexico for the Sky Island Alliance, which has used citizen-tracked data to get highway overpasses and underpasses built in Arizona. On another project I helped measure the damage cattle is doing to the forests of Utah, and our leader, Dr. Mary O'Brien, explained with passion how degraded ecosystems lead to extinctions. She presents her data yearly to the Forest Service to get them to revise grazing protocols, and she's largely successful. But neither project has the space for explaining the full import of wildlife movement or ecological resilience.

Similarly, LeBuhn's project is yes about figuring out the sources of the bee die-off, but it's about much more she doesn't really have time to explain. That's species distribution. Where species are found in what number is ground zero for figuring out how nature is working and how it's changing. It's also the basic template for understanding biogeography, which is where everything lives and the history of how it got there. All of which adds up to the biggest concept of them all: evolution. Citizen science projects are actually helping to figure out how evolution is unfolding, and to O'Brien's point, how it is being unnaturally curtailed.

On the conference call I'm discussing all the various ways different citizen science projects are helping and could help achieve the Spine of the Continent. Wildlands Network focuses on identifying and protecting corridors so species can move, staking their large territories and finding genetic renewal through other populations of their own kind. How better to get people interested in this than to have them help identify the corridors, by placing and maintaining motion activated wildlife cameras? Nonprofits can make great pitches for great causes, but mostly they wind up asking people to write a check to keep their operations going. What if you could offer people participation in that work, and then ask for money, so that people could actually help to fund their own research?

Technology gives a big assist in this direction. With a smartphone, people can make observations as of a bumblebee or a puma track and upload it to iNaturalist, a database that vets the inputs and then uploads scientifically validated entries to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. Which scientists use all the time for research -- essentially it's a digital museum. What's perhaps more cool is that those observations become points on a map. Technology allows us to look at say the migration of a single bird and map it as it moves across the continental United States. What if projects collecting that kind of data were networked together, so that a pattern showing ocelot movement from Mexico into Arizona could be shown blending into or overlaid with a migration of raptors in the same area? What if we could click on a website and see visualizations of all kinds of species movement all over the country? You and I could look at that living atlas and make our own connections about what's happening on the landscapes we are watching most closely. So I could notice that I have more hummingbirds than usual on my deck, and on my computer I could see that whales seem to be sighted more often than usual off Pt. Reyes, and some food web interaction might connect those two phenomena or maybe not. These are questions we are very close to all being able to ask no matter where we live.

A couple of months ago, Wildlands Network got an incredible opportunity to present its vision to a top philanthropy. Since the head of the foundation had got the idea from reading my book about the Spine of the Continent, I went along with them to the meetings, and I developed a plan for networking Wildlands Network through citizen science. Wildlands Network has something citizen science needs -- a conservation goal. It also has a landscape it has worked on for decades, and a grassroots following. Citizen science projects, even Gretchen LeBuhn's pollinator project, are not going to save nature unless they can be connected to actual landscapes, to community actions and networked so that the large patterns that are only discernable by looking at multiple species across multiple spatial and temporal scales can be analyzed. [No word on funding yet!]

The other big reason I'm writing this book is because "citizen science" also has the potential to do what many kindred souls have wanted for a long time -- to reintegrate multiple ways of knowing, including historic, interpersonal and artistic, into what we call "science." It reauthorizes regular people to make observations about the natural world that are taken seriously and lead to concrete outcomes. Science has become a sort of boutique specialty off-limits to the uninitiated. In this way science has cut off some of its main arteries. Darwin scholar Dr. Michael Ghiselin reflects that the greatest scientist of them all was able to think freely because he wasn't formally trained. Darwin, our most famous citizen scientist, wrote 'all that I have learnt of any value has been self-taught.' Now, this is not to disparage the initiation process and true accomplishment of the PhD. We need those people and their drill-down knowledge (and most of them are darned smart). Darwin worked hard and methodically. But he was able to ask questions across disciplines, as it were, to apply what he read about population, for example, to what he saw geologically. He was above all a creative thinker, something many sciences today constrain to a choking point.

Ultimately, our moment in time demands a breakthrough -- one that engages regular people in the discovery process of life. This is citizen science. In this book I'm interpreting the phrase thoroughly, and liberally. Thus interwoven with my own experiences on various landscapes and transects, are tales of expeditions like the 1905-06 California Academy of Sciences trip to the Galapagos, undertaken almost entirely by amateurs. And the expedition of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts that forms the narrative foundation of The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Ricketts was a dreamer always looking to "break through." He was also a seminal marine biologist (without any degree) who first elucidated the zonations of the Pacific intertidal. Steinbeck learned a great deal from Ricketts and added his own yearning to their quest. The two of them were looking for knowledge as much from within as from without.

Remarkably, Ricketts was also a huge influence on Joseph Campbell, another amateur with no PhD! Yet he remains our premier historian of mythology. In Hero with a Thousand Faces and many other works, Campbell dug deep into the cultural archaeology of our species to formulate a full definition of personal identity. Towards the end of his life he pointed beyond the Hero Myth to what he called the way of the animal powers, and the way of the seeded earth, hearkening to the cultural practices of peoples who approached life holistically as a matter of course. He leads us back to people who took up residence on this earth as citizens in a way that Aldo Leopold, the patron saint of conservation, described in A Sand County Almanac: "In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."