**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
A few weeks ago, in preparation for a meeting with Amy Freitag and Ryan Meyer about the California Citizen Science Initiative, a few staff and collaborators from NOAA’s San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) got together to talk about citizen science. Dr. Andy Chang, Dr. Lindsay Sullivan, Dr. Matt Ferner, Anna Deck, and I have worked together and independently, within and beyond our roles with the NERR, on quite a few different citizen science projects, some of which fizzled out and a couple of which are thriving. That meeting was the first time we paused to reflect on our collective, accumulated experience, and we took away some clear lessons learned. Picture: Anna Deck, Research Technician with the San Francisco Bay NERR, installing monitoring equipment in Corte Madera creek as part of our pilot project with Redwood High School.
The lesson that stood out most clearly is that the leader of the citizen science project needs to know both the citizens and the science really well to build a lasting bridge between them. As someone who has positioned myself firmly in the squishy area between science and education, I found this lesson learned to be both an “aha!” and a “duh” moment at the same time. In our most successful project to date, this key person, the true linchpin of the citizen science bridge, is Dr. Lindsay Sullivan. As a professor at Dominican University of California she has wrapped her students into an oyster monitoring program in partnership with Dr. Andy Chang and the NERR. She knows her students’ capabilities and as an estuarine ecologist she knows the science, too, so she can communicate clearly on both sides of the citizen science bridge.
A good leader isn’t enough, though. The oyster monitoring project mentioned above also has a compelling research question in the moment (Will we find oysters today?) and in the long-term (What factors allow oysters to thrive in some locations but not others? How will that change with climate change?). The questions remain compelling throughout the semester because the students see that their data is used in their own learning and in the broader research project. What we’ve found across our projects is that if the participants know the project is authentic, that they are collecting data that will make a difference in the world, then they do a better job.
Data. Data. Data. It came up over and over in our discussion. Several of our past projects (vegetation monitoring, for example) succeeded in engaging people with research, but the data wasn’t accurate enough to be useful. We all agreed that the data needs to be verified through some sort of quality control that the students themselves see. We also agreed that ideally the participants should enter the data themselves (otherwise the data management system often looks a lot like an old forgotten file folder buried on my desk).
The last stumbling block we uncovered in our discussion was that research is funded by short-term grants, but what happens to the citizens once the science is over? We are piloting a new project to turn this problem into a solution. Following the lead of LiMPETS, we are training high school students to help us keep a long-term monitoring project rolling, even after the grant funding expires. If we can build this project correctly – with compelling questions, organized leaders who know the science and the students, built-in quality control on the data collection and entry, a good data management system, and a long-term plan for genuine use of the data – then we should succeed in bringing good data to the scientists and good skills to the students. And, maybe, we’ll inspire the students to love science, and re-inspire the scientists’ love of their work, thereby strengthening the bridge between citizens and science.