Each week Cosmos takes a look at projects and news about citizen science in Australia. This week, Australian Citizen Science Association chair Erin Roger talks about the organisation’s origins, beliefs and aims.
Erin Roger cut her research teeth on a PhD focussed on wombats – specifically, the impact of road fatalities on wombat populations around the Snowy Mountains Highway in NSW. “I spent a lot of time walking that road and I did a lot of thinking about common species, and how we have this perception that there’s abundance in commonality, but no-one’s really monitoring them.”
This understanding of the amount of time organisms aren’t monitored – among other things – contributed to Roger’s interest in the democratisation of science, and in citizen science, areas she’s worked in now for about eight years.
“I’ve always been interested in the translation of science into policy, which – after I finished my PhD – prompted me to go into working for government and to thinking about how we can better make that translation. And then I fell into this role to build citizen science programs, and that’s when the idea of involving the community in science really as co-producers of knowledge fell into place.
The Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) has just celebrated five years since incorporation; Roger was one of the small cohort of people involved from the outset. Those attending the first informal meeting in Brisbane had a shared recognition of the need for a peak body to advocate for and promote citizen science in Australia.
Drawing inspiration and knowledge from lessons learnt overseas – the US and European citizen science associations were both formed in the few years ahead of ACSA – they figured out what a citizen science association would look like and what its primary functions would be, then worked through such issues as governance and communications to shape the association’s principles and how it would work in practice.
“I formally joined ACSA in 2015, and then I’ve been the chair now for about four years,” says Roger. “All the management committee members are volunteers, and when I look back on how we’ve worked and what we’ve managed to achieve in that time, it’s amazing. And I think it just doesn’t stop, there’s always continued interested in the association, and how to become involved.”
One of the biggest challenges has been to bring traditional scientists around to the idea of working with people who are enthusiastic but unqualified (in science at least – participation among those with other tertiary qualifications is strong). Roger reckons that citizen science’s uptake among scientists has been gradual.
“I’ve always said work with the champions – work with the people that want to work with you – and the rest of the people will come on board,” she says. “There’s definitely an element of scepticism, but I think as we demonstrate that citizen science can provide robust results, and clearly articulate its numerous benefits, I think more and more people will realise the benefits.
“And, credit where it’s due, technology of course is evolving and machine and AI are very much complementing citizen science. I took a photo of a plant [recently], put it on an app, and before I’d even typed in an ID, it had already provided the correct suggestion. I mean, that’s so powerful.”
Roger says citizen science has several clear benefits to scientists, first and foremost – “especially at times like now, when scientists are unable to move around” – as “eyes and ears on the ground”. She cites the role of landholders in monitoring recovery from last summer’s bushfires: “They have been very engaged and very interested, they know their land better than anyone, and they’re there 24/7. So they’re able to be eyes and ears on the ground and observing changes and recovery.”
She’s also enthusiastic about citizen science’s ability to scale up scientific question and research. For example, scientists all over Australia can go into schools and work with students on the same project, so it’s being replicated multiple times. “If you’re just working with one school that’s good,” says Roger, “but if you partner with other scientists across the country then your data can be much more powerful, and you can look at trends across a much greater spacial scale.”
Roger also believes that citizen science’s role in the democratisation of science is critical. “I think that concept can be initially challenging, getting past that ivory tower of learning, but actually there’s a lot of benefit from getting a diversity into science,” she says. “Traditionally science has been very male-dominated, very white. I think a diversity of views and knowledge – I mean Indigenous knowledge in particular, which is absolutely coming to the fore – can only be only beneficial for science; it’s about different ways of knowing and learning about things.
“There’s bias, although we don’t like to admit it, in traditional scientific method. We have some great examples where the public have done a plot survey, or looked at an image. Scientists have a pre-conceived idea of what they’ll find there, because they know the environment and they know what should be there, and they can overlook things. A novice can be more attuned to picking up interesting finds and interesting observations. Sometimes those observations aren’t meaningful, but sometimes they are.”
Roger recommends that prospective citizen scientists start by having a look at ACSA’s project finder, developed in partnership with the Atlas of Living Australia and CSIRO. “It’s a great first stop for seeing what kinds of projects are there. And then you can decide. There are online projects, so you don’t have to leave your house, and locally based projects, which are a great starting point for being involved.”
ACSA currently has several hundred individuals and a couple of dozen organisational members, allowing for a slight recent downturn due to COVID restrictions. Roger emphasises that you don’t have to be a member to participate in a citizen science effort, and that if membership rates – as low as $35 annually for students and seniors – defeat you there are still ways to join the community.
“The very nature of citizen science is inclusiveness,” she says. “I think science itself is sometimes seen as a barrier, but with citizen science – depending on the project – anyone really can be involved. There are projects out there that tailor to any kind of age range or ability and mobility.”
Roger is also the Citizen Science Program Lead for the Atlas of Living Australia, based in CSIRO Sydney.
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