Being that it’s nearly Earth Day and all, perhaps we scientists should all consider a way to kill multiple science problems with one public outreach stone. Sure, we can tell the public about our science. But people learn by doing. In citizen science projects, the public is deputized to collect or analyze data, pitting sheer numbers against the hardest problems. The result: a more educated public for the good of all mankind, and fat, juicy data for the scientists.
As an undergraduate, I was involved in the pilot year of what is now a highly successful invasive plant tracking program with satellite groups across the state of Texas. Invaders of Texas, now in its seventh year, trains volunteers to identify and map selected invasive species. This information is then validated and included in publicly available databases. Within the first 5 years, 8000 species observations had been made by 700 volunteers of 140 invading weeds. Now it’s up to nearly 14,000 observations. That is a lot of location data, much more than a scientist could come up with on her own.
This type of data will be invaluable for ecological and evolutionary studies of these species in the future. It is necessary to collect seeds from invasive populations of diffuse knapweed for my work, and scouring the knowledge of my lab and my collaborators, I could only come up with the location information for roughly 60 populations. Herbarium collections offered many more possible locations, but could date back as many as 200 years, making it less valuable information in the present. For some species in the Invaders of Texas database, there are more than a thousand locations recorded in the state of Texas alone within the last 7 years (though some of these may represent multiple observations of the same population). I am thoroughly envious of this resource.