Explosion! Renaissance! Revolution! Tsunami! This is the sort of (admittedly overblown) language you might have overheard at the first-ever large-scale conference on citizen science, to describe the recent growth of the phenomenon whereby people from outside the academy contribute valuable observations and data to those working within it.
Read more from Sharman Apt Russell.
Although today’s citizen scientist is typically educated and middle-class, the conference made a point of promoting new partnerships -- between scientists and farmworkers monitoring water quality, say, or the members of a working-class neighborhood testing for air pollution, or a region’s indigenous people looking at the effects of logging on forest management.
Describing one such collaboration, Wallace J. Nichols, a herpetologist from the California Academy of Sciences, began his talk, "Turtles All the Way Down," with the beginning of a poem by Robinson Jeffers. "Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean/ Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn/ The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings. Today/ Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,/ And white seas leap..." He continued with a well-known anecdote about a scientist and a tribal elder who are swapping creation stories. The elder explains that the world sits on the back of an elephant, which stands, in turn, on the back of a turtle. The scientist wonders what the turtle stands on (answer: another turtle). Then she wonders what that turtle stands on (answer: another turtle). They go on like this until the elder finally sighs: "No more questions, young lady. It’s turtles all the way down."
Nichols connected this story to his own youthful fascination with turtles, which took him to Baja California’s Sea of Cortez coastline in the early 1990s as a graduate student. The area’s population of sea turtles at the time had reached a low, and hunting had become illegal. Overnight, fishermen who had caught and eaten these turtles all their lives were deemed criminals. A black market for turtle meat and eggs flourished, and rather soon the five species of turtle native to this coast were considered by the scientific community to be virtually extinct.
But Nichols -- listening to what local men and women had to say -- disagreed. Over the next 15 years, he and others worked with the people living along the Sea of Cortez to study, restore, and monitor the presence of sea turtles. Together they formed the conservation organization Grupo Tortuguero. They helped protect nesting sites and educated the public about pollution and habitat loss. They discovered that loggerhead sea turtles travel back and forth between Japan and Baja California to reproduce. They began to write scientific papers based on their research. Meanwhile, sea turtle populations rebounded.
Nichols emphasized that all this required trust and transparency. Scientists and "citizen scientists" were seen as equals; everyone was engaged both in conservation and research (which today is conducted primarily by non-scientists living in the area, as well as volunteers from environmental and citizen science groups). That research, Nichols told us, is "pretty damn good," and can boast papers in a number of peer-reviewed journals. He ended his discussion by comparing his work with citizen scientists to some starfish species that reproduce by breaking in two, creating new starfish -- which then go on to divide into new and separate starfish themselves.
After the talk, one such starfish came up to Nichols to share his own story. As a college student, he told Nichols, he had thought it would be fun to work with Grupo Tortoguero for a summer, a decision that almost killed him when his group’s boat got caught in a storm and he was stranded on an island without food for two days. "It was so great, so awesome," this still-young man was saying now, as he pumped Nichols’ hand and recalled the experience. "I went on to get a Masters in Science Education, and I’m now working on my second Masters in Museum Studies."
As Nichols explained to me afterward, it’s really "turtles all the way up," with one person’s "awesome" experience in citizen science often leading to someone else’s.
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