Citizen science is a collective term for projects that engage non-scientists in gathering, evaluating and/or computing scientific data.
Citizen science covers a huge variety of projects; from the passive use of personal computers in distributed computing projects (SETI@home, Folding@Home}); through online-only analysis in the form of classification, annotation, or transcription of data (e.g. Zooniverse projects, InstantWild, Herbaria@home); to practical outdoor surveys and experiments e.g. Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) surveys, RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch; and even immersive expedition-style projects (e.g. Operation Wallacea, Earthwatch Institution Expeditions).
Ideally, citizen science benefits both the scientists and the other participants. Scientists benefit from the computational, intellectual or observational power of volunteers to generate much larger sample sizes and/or far broader geographical coverage than otherwise be possible. Non-scientists benefit by deepening their knowledge of the system being studied and their understanding of the scientific method.
Most citizen sciences are contributive - scientists decide the questions to be answered and design the protocols while participants collect data and pass it to the researchers for analysis. In collaborative citizen science projects, non-scientists not only collect data but are involved in other aspects of scientific discovery e.g. guiding questions, analysing and/or disseminating findings. Co-created citizen science projects go a step further than collaborative projects and involve volunteers in the whole scientific process.
Citizen science has a long history in ecological and environmental research but the majority of projects have focused on measuring biodiversity, for example garden birds, butterflies and earthworms. Relatively few citizen science projects involve experiments to answer questions/hypotheses - a review of citizen science projects in 2017 found just 15 hypothesis-led examples out of 509, or less than 3%.
While there is increasing evidence of the benefits of regenerative growing practices (for example, growing cover crops, no-till methods, or practicing intercropping) on a large scale, there have been very few scientific studies at the smaller, non-farm scale. Citizen science is an ideal method for small-scale growers to contribute to this research but also to join together to share knowledge, learn research skills, obtain evidence that can influence local policy makers, and investigate practices which interest them in co-created projects. Citizen science is also good value for money and is often more cost-effective than traditional scientific research.
This text was written by Victoria Burton of the Permaculture Association (Britain) as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.
The GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.