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Citizen Science Takes Root

Building on a long tradition, amateur naturalists are gathering data for understanding both seasonal events and the effects of climate change.

Kayri Havens, Sandra Henderson

2013-09HavensF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau sojourned outside Concord, Massachusetts, immersing himself in the world around him. He planted beans, entertained visitors, repaired to his mother’s house in Concord for hearty meals, and wrote Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Less widely read are the copious observations and measurements he made around the same time, between 1851 and 1858, of plants and animals at Walden Pond. But more than a century later, his records are drawing attention in their own right among ecologists seeking a view into past climates.

Thoreau was especially interested in the initial leafing and flowering of plants in springtime. He made notes on more than 500 plant species during his time at Walden. His observations contain valuable reference points for judging how those species have responded to changes in their environment, including changes in temperature and precipitation, over periods for which there would otherwise be little data.

Thoreau thus might be considered an early practitioner of what we now call citizen science. The field, which was given its name in the 1990s by researchers at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, empowers people from all walks of life to participate in the scientific process and help advance knowledge in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Thanks in part to the ease of collaborating with partners and reporting results via the Internet, such projects have proliferated over the past decade, collecting tens to hundreds of thousands of observations and working at continental and even global scales. Their benefits are educational and also scientific: Many studies have found that when reasonable quality control methods are used, the data citizen scientists collect are of publishable quality. The scientific community is beginning to recognize citizen scientist partners as important collaborators, even as ambassadors for science.

Project BudBurst, a large-scale project we have codirected since its inception in 2007, is demonstrating the results such work can have for science education and data collection. In the spirit of Thoreau and other early observers of plant life, the project engages people across the United States in a collaborative effort to gather data on plant life cycles. In the process, participants are broadening their own scientific knowledge—and helping ecologists discover how plants respond to environmental change.

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