By PENNY FENNER-CRISP
Do you have an inquiring mind? Are you interested in learning new things? Especially about horticulture and the environment that can yield benefits both for your own household and for your community?
Have you ever thought about how much fun and fulfilling it would be to participate in a research project designed to advance scientific knowledge that might help you achieve further success in your gardening endeavors, all the while protecting the integrity of the greater environment in which you live? If this idea appeals to you, consider becoming a Citizen Scientist. You won’t have to go back to school. You don’t have to have a science degree. You just need to be nosy—uh, inquisitive.
So, what is Citizen Science?
As defined by the National Geographic Society, it is “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.” Generally, the research projects are led by scientists in academia, government and many kinds of non-governmental organizations, often in partnership with one another. On occasion, it is the citizens themselves who identify a problem and start the ball rolling as advocates for themselves and their communities. Think of the Flint, Michigan lead-in-the-drinking-water situation as an example. Much of the funding for the projects comes from government, but other sources may be available, depending upon the situation and the nature of the scientific question to be answered.
How can you find a project you or members of your family might wish to participate in?
There are citizen science project databases available to search online. They allow you to filter choices by topic, active or not, recruiting volunteers or not, geographic scope (state, national, global) age group suitability, and mode of participation (e.g., as an individual, with a group, online, etc.). Start looking for a project in one of the following databases:
This site currently lists 24 projects, many of which focus on monitoring populations of birds, butterflies, frogs and toads, and wildflowers. It also contains a link to Connect with Your Community, which lists some initiatives related to environmental stewardship.
This website lists over 1600 projects, representing many different areas of science. It provides a Project Finder filter so you can select ones of most interest to you.
This database lists nearly 500 citizen science projects funded by the federal government. Many of them also are catalogued in SciStarter. This database also includes projects representing a broad swath of scientific disciplines. This site has the added feature of being able to sort by agency lead, so you can target your search to those most relevant to your gardening/horticulture and environmental stewardship interests such as USDA, EPA, and the Fish and Wildlife or Forest Services.
What if you cannot find a project that appeals to you?
Can’t find a match? But you still have scientific questions you cannot find answers to in the existing literature? Well, then, plan and conduct your own research. Some federal agencies which support citizen science and crowdsourcing programs, incorporating the results from these efforts into the analyses of their own work, also provide funding for citizen-initiated projects.
To be sure, this path is not effortless or for the faint-hearted. There are challenges in competing for grant money. BUT— think of the satisfaction you will feel, knowing that you are contributing to the scientific knowledge base in areas in which that you are personally invested.
Space does not allow for describing all the possibilities, but I will provide two examples—the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Forest Service Citizen Science – Resources webpage contains a section on designing a project. This section lists six key resources that, collectively, will provide the background and guidance for designing, conducting and reporting on your own work:
The quest for information on EPA’s Citizen Science activities begins on its webpage entitled “Citizen Science for Environmental Protection.” Here you will not only find information on projects already underway, but also how to get involved in project design and implementation.
The EPA also provides several resources to get you off on the right foot:
As an added bonus, in some cases when EPA is providing the funding, the agency offers equipment, analytical and other tools, and technical expertise to the communities receiving those monies.
Is the thought of planning and executing your own project a bit overwhelming at the moment?
If so, let’s step back a bit and proceed more cautiously—and stay local.
The VA Department of Environmental Quality conducts sampling of surface waters all across the Commonwealth. Results show that over half of the waterways in Albemarle County are considered to be impaired. The County has established the Stream Health Initiative with the goal of developing strategies for improving stream health in Albemarle County using a collaborative and inclusive process. There are a variety of roles for the public to play in the implementation of this project, depending on an individual’s interests and expertise.
And, over on Grounds at UVA, in the biology lab of Dr. Alan Bergland, the second year of the Backyard Evolution Citizen Science project is underway and looking for volunteers for the 2021 season (July-December). This project aims to collect drosophilid flies from compost piles throughout the growing season in order to examine the flies’ adaptive evolutionary changes. This work is being carried out as a collaboration between Virginia Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists, Piedmont Virginia Community College, and the University of Virginia. If you are interested in participating, click here.
Speaking of the Master Naturalists…
The Rivanna Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists is based near Charlottesville but is also active in Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson counties. Among their ongoing projects are nearly 30 categorized under “Citizen Science.” No specific details of the projects are provided in the on-line listing and there is no information as to how members of the public might become involved. However, if you’re interested in finding out more, here is their contact information:
Rivanna Master Naturalists, P.O. Box 8284, Charlottesville, VA 22906, firstname.lastname@example.org | (434) 872-4580.
And, speaking of the Master Gardeners….
The Piedmont Master Gardeners (PMG), which encompasses the Albemarle County/Charlottesville area of central Virginia, has an active citizen science project underway for which volunteers are being recruited. It is the Citizen Scientist Detection Program for Spotted Lanternfly in Virginia.
The Albemarle/Charlottesville Chapter is coordinating the detection and monitoring program in this area, partnering with, and reporting data to, the Insect ID Lab at Virginia Tech. Volunteers will be trained and provided trapping materials to be placed on the trunks of ailanthus trees, one of their top food choices. Grape vines and many trees with significant ecosystem and economic value are also on their menu; hence, the importance of tracking this pest.
If you are interested in volunteering or have additional questions, please contact the PMG Project Coordinator, Dolly Feldman (email@example.com, 434-996-3336), or the PMG Program Assistant, Melanie Feldman (firstname.lastname@example.org, 434-872-4582).
As you can see, the options available to anyone seeking to become involved in the scientific enterprise as a citizen scientist are many and varied—perhaps, even a bit overwhelming. However, there can be great satisfaction achieved in participation in such endeavors. Choose well and enjoy!