We’ll be posting updates from some of the excellent presentations by Observation and Ecology contributors and others, at our symposium and other venues at the 2012 Ecological Society of America conference in Portland, OR last week. Here is a summary of Jake Weltzin’s excellent contribution:
In his talk “Hot, Flat and Crowd-sourced: Citizen-scientist collaborations to tackle climate change,” Jake Weltzin, an Ecologist with US Geological Survey and the Executive Director of the USA National Phenology Network, and contributor to Observation and Ecology, riffed on the title of the populist book by Thomas L. Friedman “Hot, Flat and Crowded” (Picador 2009). Weltzin followed the theme laid out by Friedman that global warming, the rise of a high-consuming middle class, and increasing population size combine to create a perfect storm of environmental disaster. But Weltzin argued that we can perhaps capitalize on this perfect storm, by turning “Flat” on it’s head: the technology that facilitated the development of a connected and aware middle class can also be put to use through “crowd-sourcing” or “citizen science.”
In short, unprecedented public access to technology and information (e.g., though on-line herbariums and species identification tools, mobile applications for image capture, data entry, and community discussions) enables people without scientific training to make significant contributions to the scientific process, thereby “flattening” science. This fact, combined with an increasing awareness by scientists that their numbers are far too few to adequately answer continental and global-scale questions in a rapidly changing world, has led to the rapid development of “citizen science,” or more recently “public participation in scientific research (PPSR).”
Today, in fields as varied as ecology, ornithology, astronomy, public health, and community development, research collaborations between scientists and members of the public are not only helping collect and organize otherwise inaccessible information and data, but are also advancing scientific knowledge that is being applied to issues related to a hotter, flatter, and more crowded Earth. Moreover, and perhaps more important, the inclusion of the broader public in the process of science can improve science literacy, and for applications related to climate chance, help improve climate literacy and move people beyond the “gloom and doom of climate change” by engaging them in the process of discovery, analysis and application.
Weltzin went on to describe how the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN; www.usanpn.org) that teams citizens with scientists to track phenology (a technical term the timing of seasonal biological events—such as flowering, migrations, and breeding), as a tool to understand how plants, animals and landscapes respond to environmental variation, and to facilitate human adaptation to ongoing and potential future climate change. Phenology is a critical part of human life—e.g., agriculture, gardening, health, cultural events, and recreation—and nearly all ecological relationships and processes—e.g., plant-pollinator and predator-prey relationships, competition, and carbon and water cycling. Participants in the program record and share their observations, and while doing so get connected with nature and involved in the scientific process, and at the same time capture data that scientists are eager to use.
Thus, by engaging a willing public in a meaningful scientific activity, in collaboration with expert scientists, the Network confronts the real issue of global change, capitalizes on a flattening of science though the use of new technology and memes, and engages the public in process, all while providing information critical to sustainability in a hotter, flatter, more crowded world. This model of public participation in scientific research is being rapidly adopted around the world, as indicated by the first open conference on PPSR held the previous weekend at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) (http://www.citizenscience.org/community/conference2012/) and a brand-new peer-reviewed special issue on citizen science published by the ESA (http://www.esajournals.org/toc/fron/10/6).