How Americans Are Helping Scientists During The Pandemic

Episode 3 of Kelly Shen’s science series! Enjoy an informative article that lets you know how you can help. All images are taken from Wikimedia Commons.

In March, everything came to a standstill when the coronavirus swept through the country. However, there has been an uptick in “citizen scientists”. These people took the opportunity to go outdoors and start documenting the nature around them.

When field work stops, the population steps up

The contributions of volunteers are crucial at a time like this, when research facilities are shut down. Many citizen science websites, like eBird, founded by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, saw a 29% percent increase in contributions compared to last year. SciStarter, a website that connects citizen scientists with active research projects, saw a 480% increase in contributions. Finally, iNaturalist, a joint project between CA Academy of Sciences and National Geographic, expects to hit 50 million observations in the near future. 

“There’s a persistent stereotype that [most published] research happens in industry or academia” says Caren Cooper, an associate professor of public science at North Carolina State University. But really, nature-loving volunteers are making a big difference, from tracking sea turtles to monitoring the luminance of the night sky. 

(Recognize these backyard birds? It’s a Spotted Towhee, and its cousin, the California Towhee!)

One group, the Occoquan Bay Meadowoods Surveys, goes out into the natural areas of northern Virginia to track and record insect populations. Jim Waggener, who founded the group nearly 30 years ago, says social distancing presents its own set of challenges, but overall he’s proud of the data his team has collected this year. “We have a lot of people who started shadowing us and coming with us who knew very little about the natural world.” The newcomers “never had a chance to study their local areas” but are quickly honing their observational skills. 

What if there are errors in citizen research?

Occasionally faulty data sets are sent in. Would that skew the numbers? According to Robyn Bailey, NestWatch project leader, “No dataset is ever perfect, and that includes professional datasets.” She believes that the large amounts of data and information that comes in drowns out the messy data. “Most people are seeing the citizen science approaches and collective effort toward discovery as our best hope toward figuring out how we live together on this planet.”

How you can help:

This is a database with all the citizen research projects happening in the Bay Area. It includes organizations like the Bay Area Atlas, a project dedicated to build species guides of where the Bay Area’s unique plants and animals persist and where they are absent, as they shift in response to land use and climate change. I encourage you to take a look, and if you have time, contribute your own research!

Original Article:

By Axel de Vernou

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