Matt Ellis extols the virtues of citizen science, where amateurs can contribute to scientific studies, aid conservation work and get back to nature
The term ‘citizen science’ is a strange one, as it implies some kind of separation between citizens and scientists. Until recently, there was no such division. Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, was a Parisian tax collector who transformed our understanding of combustion, resulting in significant improvements in gunpowder production.
He probably would have done a lot more had he not been executed during the French revolution after being falsely accused of plundering the people.
Other, similar ‘gentleman scientists’ have also been instrumental in shaping our understanding of the world with little formal education. Think Darwin, Descartes, Newton and Franklin.
It was only in the 20th century that science became a profession, restricted to formalised research conducted by trained specialists in white coats. Great men with great ideas.
In the most extreme cases, science without the citizen can become something dangerous and detached. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer became so racked with revulsion for his part in creating the atomic bomb that he quoted this Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.
Whether this signalled the beginning of a greater democratisation of science or not, the timing is striking.
Amateur astronomy initiatives such as butterfly and bird counts, hydrology and tree recording all started to emerge in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Citizens became reengaged, although ‘citizen science’ as a concept wasn’t even on peoples’ minds; these were just average folk wanting to contribute to something bigger. And they succeeded.
Even today, amateur bird counts form the basis of the evidence used to inform government decisions on issues such as the positioning of windfarms or the regulation of shooting. Amateur records of bud bursts and flowering dates are contributing to our understanding of climate change. To come right up to date, biohacking – or amateur DNA manipulation – is at the bleeding edge of genetic research.
It is often found that citizen scientists produce data as good, if not better, than material produced by professional scientists. Yet this data may still be undervalued by both sides. The simple fact is that there aren’t enough professional scientists in the world to match the input from citizen scientists. And citizen science isn’t just a nice idea, it is crucial to the effective functioning of scientific research and it underpins the vast majority of the decision-making around practical biology and conservation.
There are plenty of ways you can contribute – with no lab coats required.
BASC’s Green Shoots Mapping allows you to record where you shoot, what you shoot, and what other wildlife you see. This helps us to target conservation actions like dormouse habitat work, for example, at a national level.
And providing bag returns or duck, goose or woodcock wings through our Wing Survey allows us to demonstrate the sustainability of our sport and secure its future.
Outside of BASC, you can take part in Project Splatter, recording what roadkill you see, or Crab Watch to help monitor the abundance of native crab species, and the spread of non-natives. Find something you’re interested in and find a way to contribute. Find a way to get the kids involved and teach them about the world around them.
By getting involved, you’ll probably learn something new, meet likeminded people and have a good time.
You will definitely be helping protect our environment and our sport, you might just help save the world! And, unlike de Lavoisier, you’ll definitely
keep your head!
‘Even today, amateur bird counts form the basis of evidence used to inform government decisions’
Providing bag returns for duck, goose or woodcock wings through BASC’s wing survey is one way of getting involved in scientific research