**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
A few weeks ago I made a mid-afternoon public transport trek from clear sunny Oakland across the Bay to the California Academy of Sciences, shrouded as usual in that busy fog that’s constantly on the move, but never seems to go anywhere. The reason for this meteorologically surreal journey was a meeting of Bay Area citizen science practitioners interested in discussing, as the introductory email said, “citizen science and all the great things and all the challenges that come with it.”
I myself am not a citizen science practitioner. But as the staff lead on the California Citizen Science Initiative I’m particularly interested in understanding how people who run citizen science programs are thinking about both of these elements — the great things, and the challenges. Our goal with the Initiative is to explore how ocean and coastal citizen science programs in the Central Coast of California can sit alongside traditional academic institutions as invaluable partners in marine protected area (MPA) monitoring. We view this as a tremendous opportunity (a great thing!), but it’s also a challenge.
Adaptive management of MPAs is necessarily a data-intensive activity, but it is also partnership-intensive. No single institution can take on this responsibility. Informing decisions about MPAs requires collaboration across a mosaic of partners from many corners of society. The point here is that we don’t just need data; we need good processes, mutual understanding, and strong relationships.
So this is why the question of how to link citizen science with MPA management is both complicated and important. And it’s also why I jumped at the opportunity hear about a variety of citizen science programs, and the perspectives of people leading those programs. Citizen science data might benefit the state, but how will informing MPA management help to meet the goals of these individual programs? Understanding their priorities and aspirations, along with the hurdles they need to clear, just to keep things going, is a key element of understanding not just how we could develop more partnerships with citizen science, but also why and when we should.
This question of why citizen science programs would even want to devote time and energy to informing MPA management, or any kind of decision making for that matter, is an important one. There are many different goals — education, stewardship, community engagement — that might motivate organizations to build citizen science programs. A recent study (paper here, blog post here) showed that “success” in citizen science can mean many different things. Providing useful data to natural resource managers is certainly not the only driver of these efforts.
Participants at the Cal Academy meeting discussed this balancing act. In some cases these choices might feel like tradeoffs. But some also pointed out that volunteers often want to know how data they generate are being used. Seeing real impacts from their efforts can serve as a significant motivator, helping the program contribute to its other goals, whatever those might be. In turn a widening community of data users reliant on a particular citizen science program could increase the opportunities for external funding and programmatic support.
So, we can understand the goal of linking citizen science with management as potentially adding to the costs and overall administrative and programmatic burden of implementing citizen science. It might require more time and effort from staff. It might require added training, or more expensive technology. But it’s also possible strengthening these links could create positive feedbacks in terms of volunteer commitment and external support. We need to understand where differing goals might be in tension, and where there might be synergies.
As we pursue links between citizen science programs and MPA monitoring we need to consider different approaches to balancing multiple goals. But there are many other dimensions to the challenge. For example, how do we understand the cost-effectiveness of citizen science compared with other approaches to monitoring? What kinds of questions are most amenable to citizen science approaches, and how do these relate to management needs? And what will ensure that citizen science data are credible in the eyes of decision makers?
Promoting dialog about these questions is an important aspect of the California Citizen Science Initiative. Stay tuned for more reflections on these issues here on Facing West, and contribute your views in the comments below or through a guest post!