Are You a Citizen Scientist?

April 4th, 2019

When we hear about scientific research, we imagine a group of serious people with half the alphabet after their names, signifying endless degrees that prove a proficiency in concepts that would give the average person a headache. We imagine these geniuses sitting in labs, or in exotic places with millions of dollars worth of equipment, laptops and notebooks in hand to jot down scientific observations that will reveal the complexities of the world. We don’t often think that we could collect the same information by standing in our backyard, looking at birds with a pair of cheap binoculars. It’s nowhere near the official image that we hold in our minds. In addition, most people don’t seem to have the training to take part in such endeavors. But why not? What if we, as a community, were able to do that kind of research with nothing more than time, a camera, and good old-fashioned curiosity?

This is community science.

Community science has many definitions that have evolved with this field of research since its inception in the 1990s. Though there is no set definition, the core of community science (also known as citizen science) is that scientific projects can involve everyday citizens who volunteer time, knowledge, and experience to advance the research and study of a scientific work. Alan Irwin, a British sociologist who was one of the pioneers for community science, emphasized that the scientific projects being done should benefit the citizens who aid the research.

Though the definition for citizen science is new, the concept is not. Throughout history, everyday citizens contributed time and energy into explaining the complexities of the universe, prompted solely by curiosity.

An unlikely example of citizen scientists through history were the founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin is a prime example of a citizen scientist. Franklin had little to no formal training as a scientist, yet revolutionized the scientific world through simple observation. Franklin’s purpose for creating his inventions and conducting his experiments was to improve the lives of everyday people. Writer Shawn Carlson stated that “Franklin was the first person to prove that pure science could benefit ordinary people.” This founding father and citizen scientist created a legacy through scientific discoveries such as the scale of an atom, suggesting the origin of climate change, hurricane tracking, and inventions such as batteries, bifocals, and the glass armonica.

Citizens have continued to revolutionize science through observation and experimentation, and are now coming together to build a community that can exchange and compare data that can be passed on to the wider scientific community. As an example, in 2017 sixty smallholder farmers, in two Ethiopian highland communities, worked with researchers from universities and scientific institutes across Italy and Ethiopia to collect research on how to conduct “modern, genomic-driven breeding”. These farmers drew from generational knowledge of their crops to observe the traits of 400 varieties of wheat, to find ways to grow crops according to local agriculture and to improve modern crop breeding. In the end, they collected “200 thousand data points, that the researchers related to 30 million molecular data deriving from the genomic characterization of the wheat varieties” ( This kind of community science drew from generational knowledge ingrained in farmers who have worked the land for decades, and paired it with the experience of trained science to collect data that will benefit the world at large.

Involvement in this kind of community science is available at Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center through programs like BioBlitz and iNaturalist. BioBlitz, which will be from 1 p.m. to 1 p.m. April 19-20, is a 24-hour cataloging blitz led by scientists and specialists. These scientists will guide participants on an educational hike around the property to find and catalog the different species in the arboretum. The cataloging will be done through the iNaturalist app, which is a public app that helps identify and catalog the species through photographs or recordings which then give listings of what the animal, or plant may be. This app can identify the species not just through images and sound, but by location and the results found by other users of the app. Reflection Riding will be partnering with another citizen science project at the Chattanooga Zoo called "Frog Watch USA," where the BioBlitz identification process will occur to catalog local frogs and toads.

Corey Hagen, the Director of Education for Reflection Riding Arboretum, hopes that the iNaturalist program will engage people during their time outdoors. He wants “people to realize that you can participate in valuable science and fun activities outdoors using your mobile device. The hopeful outcome for the BioBlitz is just to introduce people to the amazingly diverse community of plants and animals that we have to enjoy in Southeast Tennessee.”

Works Cited

The Electric Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father, Citizen Scientist

Harnessing Traditional Knowledge to Wheat Breeding in Ethiopia

Combining Genomics with Farmers' Traditional Knowledge to Improve Wheat Production

Citizen Science

About the Author
Nicole Dominguez is an experienced writer, in creative fiction and nonfiction, academic/research articles, literary and fine art analysis, poetry, and literary journalism. She is passionate about intergenerational and intercultural relationships, creativity, and the preservation of the past to ensure the creation of a better future.

Posted by Nicole Dominguez
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