The State of Citizen Science in Extension in 2016

door-1276284_1920From data collection to asking questions to publishing and presenting data, making steps to understand the universe has gone back to its roots – in the hands of everyone, with or without a degree. Millions of people around the world are contributing to science research outside of their normal professional activities – that’s the essence of “public participation in science research,” or citizen science.Over the course of my year-long eXtension fellowship, I have been exploring the ways Extension is working with citizen science and trying to understand the “state of the CES,” if you will. Through listening sessions, advising i3 Issue Corps projects, and collaborations within and outside Extension, I have come to a couple of conclusions:

  1. Throughout Extension, professionals in all disciplines, areas, and job titles are part of the action as well. From 4-H and FCS agents, to agriculture, horticulture, natural resources, and technology folks, including state, regional, and county personnel, Extension professionals are also involved in myriad ways: some have started projects in their local area that may spread across the country, some mentor youth in participating in projects headed by larger non-Extension groups, and some act as go-betweens, getting volunteers such as Master Gardeners trained in particular projects so the volunteers can then lead other community members. In short, our wide variety of involvement styles is both a strength and a weakness for promoting citizen science in Extension in the future. We are a scattered community without a lot of back-and-forth discussion amongst ourselves.
  2. Extension can play a vital role in the larger citizen science movement. There are two types of projects: those started “top-down” by professionals who often seek assistance in gathering large amounts of data over time and/or space, and those started by the community who want to answer particular questions about their area. These two types of projects need the other group’s input to help provide meaningful products, but they are often difficult to connect. This is where Extension comes in – we have connections both to professionals and to our communities with our reach across the U.S. I see a couple of potential ways to make these connections:
    1. Allow a portion of time for local/regional agents to play a Citizen Science coordinator/specialist role, wherein they connect their communities who have questions with professionals who have tools, and vice versa. But there’s probably no money for this, so for now, people will have to take it on within the bounds of their current plans of work.
    2. Create a “Master Citizen Science” volunteer program, where a corps of community advocates connects to the professionals and acts as the go-between. But there’s probably no money for this, plus our traditional volunteer populations may not connect well with our diverse local communities. So for now, perhaps create a training or refresher module for Master Gardeners, Master Watershed Stewards, and/or Master Naturalists which specifically prepares volunteers for and emphasizes this role. 

In each case, the Extension agent or volunteer would have knowledge of the vast resources available including existing projects that could help their communities, and also be able to translate larger state, national, or international projects for their communities, facilitating training, adapting protocols in conjunction with the project leaders, and the like. In reality, this is basically the ad hoc way a lot of Extension professionals are operating now, but in an isolated fashion, getting most of their support elsewhere – I suspect either in disciplinary subsets (like ANREP or NAE4HA) or through the projects they are involved with – rather than from each other in Extension.

As momentum in the movement continues to grow, perhaps people will see the connections that tie Extension citizen science together across other boundaries, and the resulting communities will grow. In the meantime, I offer the resources I have collected that I feel are most relevant to our Extension work. I hope you will consider joining our eXtension community and sharing your problems, questions, and resources there. As for me, I will continue my research and Extension work supporting citizen science amongst other forms of public engagement with agriscience, so I hope you will reach out directly as well.

I encourage you to look through many of the resources listed below, even if you’re not sure you’re ready for data analysis – you may get ideas for different projects to join by looking at those resources. Many of these groups offer multiple tools such as project listings and project hosting in one resource, so it is hard to separate them into just one category. And don’t forget to participate in National Citizen Science Day (it goes on for much longer than just one day)!

Link to the Resources I have compiled for Extension Professionals working with Citizen Science.