I grew up immersed in science. From class projects as a kindergartener to individual science projects with my own custom-made backboard (thank you, dad!), I loved having the opportunity to delve into any topic that interested me and figure out how it worked. Being exposed to the scientific method at a young age was perhaps one of the most important aspects of my entire education: the structure is one that can be used for any type of writing and is something I still rely on today. American science fairs also came with quite a bit of cash attached to the prizes, which didn’t hurt my interest either!
However, I recognise that I was lucky: I went to good schools, had supportive parents who didn’t mind me storing planaria in the refrigerator, and was encouraged by incredible teachers along the way. Just a few decades ago, it would have been difficult for someone without this auspicious combination to participate in anything scientific outside of a textbook. Which is why I love that science has been made even more accessible than ever before through the growing field of citizen science. My own work as a post-doctoral researcher involved crowdsourced data collection, and it hit home to me how much information could be collected in a short timeframe by recruiting members of the public. This not only means that some aspects of an experiment can be done much faster, but it also allows people to make a genuine contribution to scientific research while learning more about a subject.
All of this has been on my mind over the past week because the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recently held their annual Big Garden Birdwatch. Launched in 1979, they’ve been doing citizen science since before it was commonly recognised as a term! Since then, they’ve collected over 130 million records, earning them the title of world’s largest wildlife survey. All of this information gives us a real window into what is happening to the UK’s garden birds, both the winners (long-tailed tit numbers up 44%!) and the losers (house sparrows and starlings down 57% and 80%, respectively).
It is these damaging numbers that tend to grab the headlines, and it is easy to look around at the state of the world, and the environment in particular, and only see the negatives: hedgehogs have declined from 30 million in the 1950s to approximately 1 million now; insect numbers are down by as much as 76% in some areas; plastic pollution in the sea threatens to outnumber fish by 2050.
While scientific recording gives us the evidence to know that there’s a problem, it is up to us to take action to make it better: plant wildflowers; put up a bee house; create a hedgehog street; pick up litter and reduce your wasteline. So, for those in the UK, please turn in your Big Garden Birdwatch results if you haven’t already, and consider what steps you can take this year to make things a little better for the birds, bees, and other creatures we share the planet with.
Looking to get involved in a different type of project? Whatever your interest, from astronomy to zoology, Zooniverse and Natural Apptitude will have something for you to participate in. The tasks can be as simple as using an app to record wildlife, or as complicated as using your detective skills to transcribe records. There are no cash prizes I’m afraid, but doing something positive to benefit research—and perhaps help you out at a pub quiz? Priceless.