The Value of Citizen Science

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. 

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