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The term “citizen scientist” is in vogue these days. Citizen scientists are defined as volunteers, many without specific scientific training, who perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement, compilation or computation.
I wonder if bureaucrats invented this rather grandiose new term to entice more people into doing useful unpaid work, or, better yet, to pay for the privilege. Or perhaps it is an attempt to convince an increasingly antiscientific U.S. populace that regular citizens actually can help perform scientific work that is useful, engrossing, fun, and, at the end of the day, personally satisfying.
Whatever they are called, volunteers have always provided invaluable observational services. For millennia, non-professionals have scanned the skies for supernovae and comets.
Perhaps the most famous volunteer endeavor is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count that began in 1900. Without volunteers scouring the United States, we might still have a poor appreciation of our populations of birds, animals, insects, plants, fungi and soil microbes.
The task of documenting these populations isn’t finished, and in fact, is gaining more urgency. Climate change, whether anthropogenically induced or otherwise, has forced the focus of biological surveys and monitoring to shift from discovering new species to documenting movement of species across the landscape. Ecologists realize that they don’t have the resources to adequately survey and monitor the effects of changing conditions.
They depend on volunteers to gather data and on ordinary citizens to alert them to unusual conditions. Truly inventive scientists don’t even need dedicated non-professionals; they ask for help from casual recreationists. Desperate ecologists wrote an application for the iPhone.
They ask visitors to their parks to snap photos of invasive plants they might notice on their excursions. At the click of a button; the application sends the photos and GPS coordinates to a Web site database for evaluation. Marine biologists ask recreational fishermen to tweet their catches to Web site databases in order to track trends in fish populations.
There are now Web sites to guide aspiring citizen scientists in almost any field imaginable so they can document their observations. The Web has truly changed the world.
Scientists who can harness the enthusiasm and persistence of dedicated volunteers can extend their research far beyond their funded resources.
We at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) try to do our part to contribute to surveying and documenting our beloved Jemez Mountains.
We collaborate with Bob Parmenter, chief scientist at the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Dr. Bob is an absolute master at involving people of all callings in collecting valuable data for environmental studies at the preserve.
Los Alamos birders help compile nesting bird atlases. School children collect data on water quality and aquatic insects. Anyone can help clip grasses for the range studies.
We are fretting over the spread of invasive species, so are collaborating with Dr. Bob and the Albuquerque Chapter of the Native Plant Society to find and eliminate stands of invasive thistles. Unfortunately, these are low tech operations; cell phone coverage isn’t very good in the Jemez.
Everyone loves a good list. Our own Chick Keller is scouring the mountains with dogged persistence to collect specimens of every plant located in the Jemez Mountains for our herbarium. He is simultaneously developing a subset of all the plants occurring in Los Alamos County. He sends the data to local websites and encourages other counties to do the same.
Everyone loves the biggest and best of anything. PEEC has a program to document the largest specimen of each tree species in Los Alamos. Some big trees are located in places that require heroism beyond mere dogged persistence, but I suspect that some of the largest specimens are located in someone’s back yard.
If you have a narrowleaf cottonwood greater than 121 inches in circumference, a broadleaf cottonwood greater than 123 inches, or an aspen more than 65 inches, let us know. (We have booklets to help you identify the trees, or bring in samples.)
In addition, PEEC is developing a butterfly garden. If you know of local flowers that attract butterflies, let us know. PEEC welcomes environmental information; if we don’t have a database for it, we can invent one fast.
Perhaps we should reward our informants with a badge proclaiming “Citizen Scientist.”
Dorothy Hoard is a local author and volunteer concentrating on several environmental and historical subjects. She is giving a presentation on PEEC’s Big Tree program at 7 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 24 at PEEC, 3540 Orange Street in Los Alamos.