Communicating citizen science: ‘Your wildlife’

In September, we will give a training course Science communication at the Graduate School for Animal Science in Wageningen. In such workshops, we are used to show some really good examples, in a field related to that of the attendants. So in this course for PhD’s, we might take the excellent work that is being done by the group Your wild life a group of biologists, science communicators, students and citizens based at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh.  Why is this excellent, in our eyes?

1. They have a really clear and intriguing “core message” and mission: ‘Bacteria and animals that exist right under our noses, from the surface of our skin to our backyards, are just as interesting as those found in tropical forests. But surprisingly, these familiar places where we spend our everyday lives have been so little studied.’ ‘Your Wildlife’ aims to change that.

2. The group is adopting all possible means to tell the same core message  again and again:  by making use of bloggers (entomologists from around the country); tweeters and film makers. Naturally, the group has published books.  And they are organizing meetings for citizens and amateur scientists including retired professionals, school teachers and students. These people are counting ants in their gardens, inventing names for a mites or giving samples of their belly buttons (2300 different microbe species were found in 300 belly buttons); Sure, the details of the stories are different every time, but the overarching message remains the same: Look how interesting our surrounding are!

3. The group is adept at reaching a broader public. They don’t just come up with the formal results of peer reviewed articles, but with the on-going-results of the citizen research:  including new camel crickets in garages, basements and garden sheds, and previously undiscovered ant species in New York, or the bacteria species in your armpits. The stories are meant for everyone who is participating. And if you participate, you will be getting something back: credits and interesting information about your own surroundings. The stories are about people, their homes and their concerns (including yours…) and that is normally more interesting than stories that only focus on bacteria, ants or mites.

So the group is harnessing a community, both to discover more about our surroundings and to market their products. But this enticing mix of science, science marketing and journalism takes time and money. Fortunately, scientific organizations including the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a NASA Biodiversity Grant are now paying for it.  But the question is always: what will happen with the initiative when they stop paying?

Another  example in the US is the Geo-Wiki Project, an amateur science project charged with improving the quality of global land cover maps.  According to a recent article in PLOS ONE, the quality of the expert and non-expert crowd sourced data in this project were comparable.

One of the best examples in the US is YardMap, in which citizens monitor their gardens.

Or this one: the World Water Monitor Challenge – a science and education program to involve citizens and schools in a worldwide monitoring the water quality. This is one of the first citizen science projects with a global goal.

One of the best examples in the Netherlands is www.natuurkalender.nl, paid by Wageningen University and Research Centre and several nature organizations.

More blogs about our courses Science Communication.