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Monday, September 27, 2021

Researchers enlist the help of the everyday public scientist

You don’t have to be a conservation biologist to help regenerate a dying breed of blue oak trees.

This is the hope of citizen science-advocate, Heidi Ballard, a professor in the UC Davis School of Education, who believes that public volunteers can not only help researchers collect data, but can help create the research itself.

“We ask,” Ballard said in a press release, “‘What do local people already know or can contribute to science? And what can scientists contribute to educating these people?'”

Her most recent project involved approximately 25 volunteers from Yolo and Solano counties, who learned to collect samples to determine whether or not oak trees on private ranches were regenerating, or reproducing. The data was then used by Audubon California, a Sacramento-based conservation society.

Tavis Forrester, a student in the Ecology Graduate Group, helped train the volunteers on how to collect the oak tree data.

“[The research is] valuable for me and the volunteers,” Forrester said. “They’re directly contributing to a research community and I’m getting a sense of the interest of the community in relation to conservation.”

Without volunteers, the process would have cost more than 10 thousand dollars, Forrester estimated. He added that one of the main appeals of using volunteers in research is the amount of money it could potentially save.

Ballard and her team of researchers are currently aiming to institutionalize this method of research. The technique takes citizen science – a term coined several years ago by the National Science Foundation- one step further by allowing the volunteers to participate more closely with researchers.

Institutionalizing the method will allow for long-term volunteer-based research, Ballard said. Studies such as the Ballard’s oak survey could jump from a one-year lifespan to 10 years, allowing researchers more insight into population dynamics, demography and regeneration issues with the trees.

“[Long-term] studies have been able to give people details that have led to changing ecological theory,” Forrester said.

However, including volunteers in research also runs the risk of confounding scientific data in favor of a tangible final product, said Pat Mokhtarian, associate director for the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

“What’s interesting to the outside world isn’t always the most practical,” she said. “Our job as scientists is to convey the fine print in a way that makes it important to our audience. The headlines are interesting but you have to know things [such as] how representative the sample was.”

Mokhtarian said that although she doesn’t practice citizen science in her research on transit ridership, she does frequently use input from the public to gather data. Using public input like this, she says, ensures that her research will benefit the public.

Some researchers even argue that Ballard’s progressive citizen science approach is the next logical step in scientific advancement.

“We’re already a decade or more into really robust citizen science programs,” said Mark Schwartz, director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment. “It’s because of these massive efforts by the public that we’ve been able to advance science. There’s no way there are enough specialists to collect the data used in a lot of research.”

Schwartz added that involving the public in research will help the research data benefit the public by keeping a common interest in mind from the start. If the public has a say from the beginning, they will be more interested in not only the outcome, but also the process of science itself.

“We have a shockingly large public misunderstanding of how science gets done,” Schwartz said. “We have, as a society, a cartoon view of these scientists in their white lab coats doing experiments and that’s so far from how it actually looks. We really should involve the people from start to finish – it’s going to have a lot more impact when it’s done if we do it like this.”

LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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