In Darwin’s footsteps – an amateur with an app
Earlier this year a mechanic in Darwin found a new galaxy. He was one of many amateur astronomers involved in a project to hunt for planets, as featured on the television program Stargazing Live hosted by celebrity starman Professor Brian Cox.
Viewers of the show were encouraged to take part in the search and thus become “citizen scientists” – a term that is increasingly familiar as the once-exclusive science fraternity reaches out to embrace the enthusiastic amateur.
Citizen scientists are those with the time and interest – though not necessarily the qualifications – to contribute to the field of scientific inquiry in a wide variety of ways.
The term “citizen science” is not new. For example Noosa conservationist Dr Arthur Harrold used it in a newspaper interview about 40 years ago.
When he retired from medical practice, Dr Harrold devoted himself to the study of Australian plants, writing papers for scholarly journals and bringing to this interest a scientific rigour that raised it above mere “hobby” level.
Today “citizen scientists” are recognised as valuable partners in many natural science endeavours, undertaking the field work and observation which “professional” scientists are unable to do due to lack of time and – more critically – funding.
It’s an honourable calling with many distinguished participants.
Back in the 1920s English steelmaster and birdwatcher Elliott Howard made one of the most important discoveries in the field of natural history when his painstaking daily observations revealed the role of territory in bird (and other vertebrate) life.
His book of that name is still relevant a century later.
And of course the most famous citizen scientist in history was Charles Darwin, who travelled to South America as a gentleman naturalist in the days before “science” became a profession.
If he’d had a smart phone and the right app who knows, he might have come up with the theory of evolution without leaving home!
The role of the citizen scientist in Australia is recognised by the Federal Government, which last November allocated grants worth $4 million over four years to support more opportunities for volunteers to collaborate with researchers on high-quality, nationally important research projects.
There is a peak body, The Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA), which lists available projects and facilitates new projects put forward by members.
“Citizen scientists are recognised as valuable partners in many natural science endeavours”
Projects cover a range of interests including wildlife (with specialist projects involving possums, reptiles, platypus, frogs, spiders, birds and marine life), astronomy, palaeontology, geology, biodiversity and plants.
Skills taught and acquired include specialised photography, data collection, GPS use, digital mapping, fossil preparation, species identification, stargazing and telescope operation.
Those who already have skills and experience in these areas, as well as bushwalking, birdwatching, rock climbing, fossil hunting, camping, skin diving and boat handling skills, can turn them to good use because citizen science offers adventure and fun as well as contributing to the body of human knowledge.
Former English teacher Briony Heffernan lives in a Brisbane retirement village and recently took part in the Wildlife Spotter program initiated by Inspiring Australia (Queensland), an organisation that, in its own words, “aims to deliver a more scientifically engaged Australia”.
“I’d had no interest in science at all,” Briony says. “And then just before I retired I found myself watching more natural history documentaries and then went on an Earthwatch project and became hooked.
“When I heard about the Wildlife Spotter program it seemed easy and useful and I decided to have a go.
“I’ve made new friends who share my interests, and learned so much.”
Briony is now planning to take part in a second project monitoring the Great Barrier Reef.
The largest citizen scientist project in Australia is the backyard birdbath and bird feeding survey organised by wildlife ecologist Dr Grainne Cleary, a Research Fellow at Deakin University in New South Wales. For one month twice a year, participants record birds visiting water features and feeding stations in their gardens. The summer 2017 survey attracted 2000 people.
Their observations are recorded electronically on the feedingbirds.org.au website and the data is used in ongoing research.
“Gra”, as she likes to be called, is, like Prof Brian Cox, one of the new young breed of scientists who enjoy engaging with the public.
Ebullient and full of Irish charm, she has become something of a media identity because this, as she says, is how she gets her message across.
She acknowledges that backyard bird feeding is controversial in Australia and one of the survey’s aims is to ensure that those who do so are providing appropriate food.
Beyond that, the survey helps to monitor changes in urban birdlife.
“The back garden is an increasingly important habitat for birds in the urban environment,” she says.
“And we can’t get data from backyards, to find out how birds are using them without people’s involvement.”
Dr Cleary is writing a book on birds in our backyards and has involved her team of citizen scientists by asking them to contribute their own bird stories.
Queensland grazier Dave Elliott didn’t think of himself as a citizen scientist when, in 1999, he found a fossilised dinosaur bone on his property near Winton.
However he and his wife Judy soon became the most famous non-qualified palaeontologists in Queensland when they collaborated with the Queensland Museum on this and subsequent finds, always encouraging the participation of volunteers in digs and fossil specimen preparation.
In time, this led to the founding of The Age of Dinosaurs centre outside Winton, today a major tourist attraction that welcomes the involvement of citizen scientists with a bent for bones.
Their efforts have made a significant contribution to Queensland’s understanding of its fossil record.
Organisations that foster citizen science projects include Inspiring Australia (which has a Queensland branch), SEQ Catchments and Queensland National Parks and Wildlife.
Says Michelle Prior, NPAQ President of the National Parks Association of Queensland, “Citizen science projects are invaluable in collecting data that compliment or enhance professional scientific data, or fill important gaps.”
Another major project involving volunteer “scientists” is the Atlas of Living Australia (ala.org.au) which makes its projects accessible to participants through digital technology, enabling them to collect and input field data easily and accurately.
In fact, today’s citizen scientists can do it all with just a mobile phone or tablet and apps for inputting data and identifying everything from planets to frogs. This is why the iNaturalist (iNaturalist.org) program is becoming so popular.
Essentially this is an online social network where citizen scientists and professional biologists meet. It is built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations around the world.
All you need to do is join the program, download the app and you have access to a whole wide world of natural science data and the chance to input it too, including old records that you may have had stored away for years.
“It’s a great way to impress your grandchildren and get them involved in outdoor adventure with a scientific learning curve thrown in,” says retired accountant and keen natural historian Darrell Symes.
Symes is a recent convert to iNaturalist and says it is an excellent tool for species identification.
It also enables individuals and small natural history organisations to help build species lists, record observations and help elevate novice naturalists to a greater expertise.
He takes his two grandchildren on camping trips where they observe and record everything from planets to platypus.
“It’s great to be able to identify species and input observations directly from the field by means of the iNaturalist app and let’s face it, if you want to engage with kids today then apps are the way you have to go,” he says.
JOIN THE ACTION
Here’s how to start:
If you’d like to become a citizen scientist, Inspiring Australia, the ACSA, SEQ Catchments, National Parks and Wildlife, Birdlife Australia(Queensland) all have websites with the information needed.
For those interested in astronomy, Brisbane has three societies plus there are others at Redlands, the Scenic Rim and the Gold Coast, all welcoming the beginner and offering the chance to take part in research.
For example the Astronomical Association of Queensland’s Edward Corbould Research Fund was established in 1987 by a philanthropic Sunshine Coast property developer.
The purpose of this fund is to support astronomical research projects by amateur astronomers and tertiary students.
The website is aaq.org.au; other astronomical websites are seqas.org, bas.asn.au, ras.org.au and sas.org.au.