Heard at the Ecological Society: Hot, Flat, and Crowdsourced

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).

About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
This entry was posted in Ecology, Environment, Observation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s