Citizen Science – by Mike Toms of BTO

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Without the efforts of many thousands of volunteers participating in Citizen Science projects, our knowledge of the changing distribution and abundance of UK wildlife would be vastly depleted.

The value of the contribution made by citizen scientists is, at last, becoming more widely recognised, and increasing efforts are being made to understand, nurture and grow the use of Citizen Science as a tool for environmental and biodiversity monitoring.


Citizen Science volunteer
Bird surveying at Old Hall Marshes – Derek Voller under CC license


Despite the growing recognition of the contributions being made through Citizen Science there are still some who see the word ‘volunteer’ and immediately assume that the science delivered is less robust and less valuable. Yet many of the volunteers who participate in Citizen Science may be far better botanists, ornithologists or entomologists than many of those working professionally within the scientific and consultancy disciplines.


Citizen Science makes a significant contribution

to the study of biodiversity


Even where a Citizen Science project involves participants who are less skilled, perhaps with just an ‘amateur interest’, a correctly structured project with clear aims should deliver robust data. It is important, of course, that the outputs from Citizen Science should be published through peer review, since this allows the approach adopted and conclusions drawn to be examined and challenged.


Citizen Science flora survey
Surveying alpine flora – GlacierNPS under CC license


Central to a successful Citizen Science project is the partnership between the paid professionals who develop the methods, and process and analyse the data, and the volunteers who collect the information. Increasing demands for the collection of data for biodiversity monitoring, perhaps to understand the impacts of land-use change or development, requires more resources than can be delivered purely through paid professionals.

Citizen Science makes a significant contribution to the study of biodiversity, underpinning much of the UK’s biodiversity monitoring framework and enabling reporting under statutory obligations.


It has become the cornerstone of biodiversity monitoring


Citizen Science enabled BBS survey
Recently launched BBS 2016

There is, for example, no way that the recently published BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey, with its 3,700 survey squares researched annually, could be operated by using just paid professionals. Writing in 2004, Battersby & Greenwood estimated that the contribution of volunteers to bird monitoring within the UK was “well over 90%” (v. paid professionals) and a recent BTO estimate places a value of £31 million on the annual contribution made to its Citizen Science schemes through the hours given so generously by volunteers.

Growth in the use of a Citizen Science approach has seen the emergence of a new kind of Citizen Science project, one in which the aim is participation and engagement, rather than delivering a specific scientific or monitoring output. There is value in such projects, since active participation invariably secures higher levels of the engagement with the organisation running the project.

Efforts to promote good practice, to ensure that the partnerships with citizen scientists are valued and that the most robust scientific approaches followed, will see the continued development of Citizen Science as a tool for monitoring. It has become the cornerstone of biodiversity monitoring within the UK, as well as elsewhere across the globe, and its use will continue to deliver a significant proportion of the information needed to understand what is happening to wildlife populations and their habitats.


Mike Toms is Associate Director, Communications (Science) at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

The BTO runs a number of Citizen Science projects, working with over 50,000 volunteers annually. Mike is responsible for communicating the science and monitoring work undertaken by the BTO, including the role played in this by its volunteers. He is the author of Owls – New Naturalist Series, published in 2014.

Find out more about BTO’s projects in the talk: Citizen Science directory or on the BTO website.



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