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The Value of Citizen Science

2013 November 20
Bob Perciasepe

November 20, 2013
11:14 am EDT

Some time ago, observers and scientists noticing declining bird populations began to worry. One of those concerned was ornithologist Frank Chapman—an officer at the Audubon Society—who proposed something he thought would help: a new holiday tradition he called a “Christmas Bird Census.” That was in the year 1900.

For more than a hundred years, moms, dads, sons, and daughters have braved the elements and traveled to nearby conservation land or refuges and eagerly watched backyard feeders to participate in the Christmas Bird Count—and to contribute to conservation. To this day, the data collected by these citizen scientists inform researchers of the health of bird populations.

Citizen science isn’t a fresh idea. It’s tried and proven, and we’ve been at it for generations. But times have changed. Cell phones are equipped with high-resolution cameras. Low-cost sensors and GPS are readily available. And the internet sits at our fingertips in an increasingly interconnected world. These technologies have widened the boundaries and increased the value of citizen science in the 21st century.

That’s why today at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., I’ll join fellow federal agencies and partners to discuss how to continue moving forward on citizen science.

From crowdsourcing to mobile apps and more, we should take full advantage of the contemporary tools at our disposal. For example, NOAA recently launched mPing—a mobile app aimed at collecting weather observations from people like you. Those observations help scientists verify models, validate methods, and better serve families who rely on accurate weather information.

Citizen science, or public participation in scientific research, accomplishes two main goals.

First and foremost, it involves and empowers a participating public. We know that citizen science, when properly characterized and properly managed, can be a powerful tool, supporting the complexity and expertise of the scientific process agencies like EPA employ.

That’s how, secondly, data provided through a variety of citizen science activities contributes to our scientific knowledge base. From NGOs like the Audubon Society to government agencies like NOAA and EPA, citizen science can help organizations prioritize action and investment—so rulemakings and clean-up efforts reflect the realities folks are dealing with in their backyards.

Ongoing efforts at EPA are tapping into citizen science in a variety of ways. Volunteer water monitoring has helped protect streams, lakes and estuaries for decades, and continues to today. The EPA regional office in New Jersey/New York has worked with community partners to host workshops and events that support citizen science efforts in the region.

Through citizen science, millions of willing volunteers have the means to do their part to keep our environment safe and healthy. If you, your friends, or your families are already avid citizen scientists, comment below to tell us about your contributions. And I hope you’ll join us this afternoon, or tune in online, as we discuss New Visions for Citizen Science.

Appointed by President Obama in 2009 as the U.S. EPA’s Deputy Administrator, Bob Perciasepe continues a career spanning nearly four decades as one of the nation’s leading environmental and public policy figures. An expert on environmental stewardship, advocacy, public policy, and national resource and organizational management, Perciasepe is widely respected within both the environmental and U.S. business communities. Perciasepe holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resources from Cornell University and a master’s degree in planning and public administration from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Alan Gregory permalink
    November 21, 2013

    My citizen science contributions (those that come to mind at 0700 EST): Compiler, for 15 years, of five 4th of July Butterfly Counts in Pennsylvania (for the North America Butterfly Association); observer for at least two decades, in Christmas Bird Counts both in Pennsylvania and Vermont; ran two Breeding Bird Survey routes (for the U.S. Geological Survey) in Pennsylvania for 15 years until being sidelined by a traumatic brain injury; founded and ran the Council cup fall hawk migration lookout in Pennsylvania for the Hawk Migration Association of North America; collected field notes for the Pennsylvania Herpetological Atlas and the Second Breeding Bird Atlas of Pennsylvania; and collected field observations for the Vermont butterfly atlas.

  2. Rebecca French permalink
    November 22, 2013

    Check out this blog post from the Governance Lab at NYU entitled, “Citizen Science: Vision and Practice” that summarizes the Wilson Center event where Perciasepe spoke on Nov. 20.

    Excerpt from the blog:
    “Erin Heaney from Clean Air Coalition suggests that federal agencies connect with communities on issues that matter and others on the panel agreed. When individuals and communities have a stake in the outcome of the research, it is likely they will have a greater investment in their role in the assignment. The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has been one of the forerunners in outreach, and Heaney suggests that other federal agencies learn from the EPA’s engagement efforts.”

  3. Dustin Renwick permalink
    November 27, 2013

    That’s interesting, Alan. I did amateur entomology in 4-H growing up, and I’d love to stay connected with something like a butterfly count. As for birds, check out this post on our most popular birding president.

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