Citizen Science

If asked to picture a scientist, most people probably would imagine a professional peering into a microscope or poring over statistics on a computer screen. Science does not belong solely to such professionals, however. Ordinary citizens from all walks of life have a huge stake in science and technology as well, which can both enrich their lives with new discoveries and damage their world with pollution. Citizen science is a movement that recognizes the contribution which such concerned citizens can make to scientific policy and research, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

Several high-profile court cases have proved the power of citizen science. For example, it was citizen volunteers in Woburn, Massachusetts, who gathered data about the unusually large number of area children stricken with leukemia, a cancer of the blood-forming cells. The efforts of these volunteers led to a trial, where two large corporations were accused of polluting the town's water, which was thought to have played a role in the children's illness. The trial, in turn, inspired a best-selling book by Jonathan Harr and a popular movie starring John Travolta, both titled A Civil Action.

Another famous example of citizen science is less controversial, but just as powerful in its own way. In 1900 the National Audubon Society launched its Christmas Day Bird Count, in which amateur birdwatchers were asked to tally and report the number of birds they spotted on one day. The first year, twenty-seven people took part. Today, this event, the longest-running of all citizen science projects, attracts more than 50,000 participants. Several other large-scale bird counts have started as well. These projects help scientists spot local changes in bird populations, which may signal an environmental threat, such as groundwater pollution or poisoning from the improper use of pesticides.

Some citizen science programs enlist people of all ages to help with the hands-on collection of technical data. For example, Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) is a program that has involved more than one million elementary through high school students in the United States and one hundred other countries. The students learn to take accurate measurements of the air, water, soil, and vegetation in their area. They then share their data via the Internet. Scientists, in turn, use the measurements to improve their understanding of the global environment.

Although GLOBE is sponsored by the U.S. government, many citizen science programs grow out of grassroots organizations. For example, it is estimated that over 550,000 people in the United States are involved in monitoring rivers in their area. The River Watch Program is a national organization that provides training and support to local groups working to protect and restore their rivers. As these examples show, individuals do not need lab coats, fancy equipment, or a big research budget to make very real and important contributions to environmental science.



Harr, Jonathan. (1996). A Civil Action. New York: Vintage Books.

Internet Resources

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of State. "Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE)." Available from .

National Audubon Society and Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. "BirdSource." Available from .

River Network. "River Watch Program." Available from .

Linda Wasmer Andrews

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