Citizen Science is Changing the World

I’m snorkelling way too early on a blustery Sunday morning. The waves are pretty rough and the ocean’s icy – it’s nearly winter. I’m not doing this for fun, that much is fairly clear. I’m not looking for fish either – I’m looking at seaweed.


Why? I’m helping count crayweed, a species of seaweed that is being reintroduced to our eastern coast by a dedicated team of scientists. A team of which I, a thoroughly scientifically illiterate person, was (albeit briefly) a part of. 


Something is changing the way we understand and interact with science. It’s collaborative. It’s not just white coats in labs. Even your regular layperson like me can contribute to ground-breaking research. What if I told you that you could be a part of a project conducted by NASA, simply by walking outside this evening?


People in hundreds of countries and from all walks of life are engaging in ‘Citizen Science.’ They are collecting and recording data on a previously unachievable scale, on a dazzlingly varied range of subjects. Often, large scale scientific endeavours rely on the collection and recording of simple data – stuff that anyone can do, but that just one or two scientists on their own can’t possibly hope to achieve. Access to technologies that make participation in citizen science as simple as unlocking your phone have increased the participatory scope of these projects to operate on national and global scales. Regular people are contributing to projects that concern everything from identifying frogs to searching for a possible ninth planet.


This is pretty incredible when you think about it. 


The Atlas of Living Australia, for example, is a nation-wide project that aims to map the biodiversity of the entire continent. So far, it’s recorded over 125,000 different species and has recorded nearly one hundred million occurrences of plants and animals. It’s helping scientists do all sorts of things; measuring climate change, identify threats to endangered species, and even predict the best growing regions for certain types of wine (a personal favourite). 


Admittedly, identifying water bugs or recording certain types of grass can seem pretty mundane. But not only does citizen science help scientists conduct large-scale scientific research, it is a key part of effective policy making and conservation efforts, helping us to gain a deeper understanding of our impacts on the world around us. When people spend time in their local natural environments, taking time to observe the birds, identify the frogs, they care more about what happens to it. 


You might not have known that the Seaside Scavenge is also a citizen science project! The trash we collect isn’t justcollected: it’s meticulously categorised and recorded so we can get a better understanding of the biggest culprits that pollute our waterways. Not only does this give us information: it gives us activism. Real, recorded evidence can help people push their local councils and businesses to change their policies on plastic, do better at recycling, and educate their community.


Humble, local citizen science projects like this might not seem particularly grand. But scientific knowledge is essential to building the understanding and activism that we need on climate issues on a global scale. For example, emissions trading schemes all over the world have been consistently undermined by false and misleading reporting. How can we hold polluters to account if we don’t have the data to prove it? There are now numerous citizen science projects that are aiming to do just this – for example, the adorably named ‘Curious Noses’ project in Belgium asks citizens to literally sniff out pollution and monitor air quality. 


As Sir David Attenborough put it when talking about the recent school climate strikes, “[Young people] understand the simple discoveries of science about our dependence upon the natural world… My generation is no great example for understanding – we have done terrible things.” With knowledge comes action – and without it, we’re in trouble. 


If you’re interested in getting involved in a citizen science project, it literally is as easy as clicking a button. There are thousands of active and ongoing investigations in Australia. 


We’ve highlighted a few fun ones below, but if you head to the Australian Citizen Science Project Finder you can take your pick:


Operation Crayweed are restoring Sydney’s underwater forests, and regular folk help them to monitor kelp and analyse data. If you’re a diver or a snorkeller, this one’s for you!


Globe at Night an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution. In conjunction with NASA, people from over 100 countries participate


Stop scrolling and check out these apps so you can be a citizen scientist on your phone: 

  • Biocollect App – contribute to the Atlas of Living Australia!

  • Coast Snap App – hit the beach and do science to help record erosion on our coast.

  • FrogID – record frog sounds and you could become one of Australia’s top ‘froggers’!

  • Wingtags for Cockatoos – especially for the Sydney folk, make some feathery friends.


Anna Jane LinkeSydney