How to get involved in citizen science and why it makes a difference

The concept of citizen science is not a new one and here in the UK there is a long history of scientific discoveries by volunteers or amateurs especially when it comes to wildlife and environmental monitoring. However, the idea of public participation in science projects has now become a popular route for charity organisations big and small to collect data and help public engagement at the same time. The term citizen science covers a wide range of activities and today volunteers can contribute to research or studies on an ever expanding variety of themes.

So what’s on offer?

Take part in a national survey

Perhaps the biggest public contribution of late is the mass survey. Recent volunteer surveys have included the Big Garden Birdwatch which asked the public to record bird species which visited their gardens over one weekend in January. The birdwatch actually started back in 1979 and with these annual results the RSPB has now gained 30 years worth of data giving an excellent resource to monitor trends and patterns in bird numbers. This year’s survey attracted more than half a million participants who counted more than 8.5 million birds.

RSPB Garden Birdwatch (Photo Credit: cherrytiger)

RSPB Garden Birdwatch (Photo Credit: cherrytiger)

Others this year including the Great British Bee Count which ran in May and then the Big Butterfly Count at midsummer and there’s still time to take part in this years UK Lady Bird Survey or the RSPB Swift Surveys.

Report your sightings

While mass surveys usually only run at certain times of year you can report sightings of endangered or noteworthy species at any time through a number sites and help researchers determine distributions or overall numbers. For example if you’re in Scotland the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrel group are currently asking the public to report sightings to help create a national record of both red and grey squirrel distributions. This information can then help form the basis of long-term plans for red squirrel conservation. You can also contribute to UK wide schemes including the Bat Monitoring Programmes, Beetle Surveys or even Seaweed Recording but you’ll find a whole list on the National Biodiversity Network site.

However, not all sightings are positive signs and keeping an eye out for the unusual is just as important. Citizen science plays a large part in the war on invasive non native plants in the UK. Plants such as creeping water primrose, Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed have all been introduced to the UK and not only threaten native species but can cause a wide range of problems from blocking waterways to damaging buildings and even causing health issues. Spotting invasives early can be key to stopping them establish and using apps like iRecord and Plant tracker can help organisations keep invasive species at bay and protect native plants and animals.

Identifying plants using iRecord (Photo Credit: Pete Boardman)

Identifying plants using iRecord (Photo Credit: Pete Boardman)

You can find out lots more on invasive plants and animals and how to spot and record them on the Non-Native Species Secretariat site.

Find local hands on projects

If you’re more interested in getting a bit more active and getting your hands dirty (sometimes literally) then getting involved in a local wildlife trust or nature organisation is a good start. Local charity organisations often run citizen science days to get communities involved in their research and to help out with everything from water quality assessments or vegetation surveys to insect counts and animal tracking. You’ll get to work alongside a professional or a researcher helping them collect data and making a contribution to scientific studies while learning something new along the way.

Water Quality Testing with Friends of the River Kelvin (Photo Credit: FORK)

Water Quality Testing with Friends of the River Kelvin (Photo Credit: FORK)

Groups like The Conservation Volunteers actively promote citizen science projects in communities throughout the UK but you can volunteer your time with the likes of the Natural History Museum, Open Air Laboratories programme (OPAL) or the Woodland Trust.

With so much to get involved with, where will you start?

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Kirstin McEwan
Current Wildlife Conservation Masters student and former Environmental Stewardship graduate with interests in wildlife conservation and science communication

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