Citizen Science in Full Flight
Norm Brandson | June 2020
Citizen science, the engagement of the lay public in the organized but voluntary collection and assessment of observations related to a particular scientific line of inquiry, is in full flight in Canada.
This is not a new phenomenon. Annual bird counts that contribute greatly to the science of ornithology have been taking place across the country for many years. Simple lake surveys conducted by cottagers using a Secchi disk to measure water clarity and a grab sampler to collect water samples for quality analysis by government staff were first instituted in the mid-seventies. Private citizens have long provided local precipitation data helping to contribute to the science of meteorology. The list is quite long.
The benefits of this citizen science have always been evident:
Extending the scientific data base far beyond what could be acquired through academic and government budgets;
Promoting scientific literacy by educating the participating public in a particular scientific discipline, problem, or issue;
Engaging young people, fostering their interest in science, and building a foundation for scientific literacy; and,
Focusing public attention on specific issues that require a greater scientific understanding before they can be solved.
Nonetheless, the present generation of citizen science departs from the past in several important ways. First, the magnitude of the problems being addressed has grown. Climate change and its already substantial impact on water have lent a greater sense of importance and urgency to citizen efforts. Second, these efforts are much better coordinated and organized, not just locally but regionally and nationally, with a much stronger link to universities. On a national scale, for example, Global Water Futures actively promotes citizen science. On a smaller scale, the Lake Winnipeg Foundation (LWF) is but one example of the many regional and local efforts underway in Canada. Third, Indigenous traditional knowledge and observation is finally being recognized for its contribution to environmental science. Fourth, scientists themselves have come to recognize that citizen contribution can be quite sophisticated; it need not be limited to the simplest tests and observations. Fifth, public interest in these programs has exploded. Sixth, these programs are building an inter-generational bridge, pairing seniors – many of whom are retired scientists – and young people. And finally, there is growing momentum behind the creation of a national database to include and standardize the data from Canada’s many citizen science programs, perhaps under the auspices of a new Canada Water Agency.
An example of the kind of useful work that’s underway is the Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network coordinated by the Lake Winnipeg Foundation. Last year, 75 citizen volunteers collected over 2,000 samples from more than 150 sites around the Lake Winnipeg Basin. The samples, taken during spring runoff and at various times in the open water season, particularly during rain events, were analyzed for phosphorus content. This sampling, done over a number of years, will help identify “hot spots” for phosphorus input to Lake Winnipeg, the cause of annual massive blue-green algae blooms. The data generated by this program provides essential knowledge that can contribute to both a better understanding of these blooms and strategies to reduce their frequency. The program is an excellent example of the way citizen science is improving environmental decision-making across the country.