Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, by Mary Ellen Hannibal

March 16, 2017

By Sarah Boon, Ph.D.

In her latest book, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, Mary Ellen Hannibal picks up where Elizabeth Kolbert left off in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

Kolbert's book outlined how scientists came to the conclusion that Earth had experienced five major mass extinction events, with the first just over 400 million years ago. These events have been attributed variously to major shifts in the Earth system such as ice ages, algal blooms, increased greenhouse gases, and the asteroid impact at Chicxulub Crater.

However, the current mass extinction crisis—the sixth extinction—is placed squarely on the shoulders of humans. We're changing climate, reducing habitat, spreading invasive species ...the list goes on. Indeed, given the rate at which species are currently going extinct, we may reach an ecological tipping point beyond which ecosystems will begin to behave differently due to species loss.

Hannibal kicks off her book by outlining what the sixth extinction looks like for the specific geographic area she's focused on: California. She mentions changes in vegetation after settlers effectively stopped Indigenous peoples' use of fire in the landscape, dying sea stars due to wasting diseases and changes in ocean conditions, declines in the populations of top predators that have destabilized both terrestrial (think wolf and grizzly) and marine (think otters and whales) food webs, and more.

However, rather than despair at the evidence of extinction all around us, Hannibal looks for the positive. She focuses on citizen science as a way to get a handle on this sixth extinction, to engage the public in understanding and helping solve this problem, and to link scientists with the public in a way that works to build society and democracy. While I've written about citizen science previously, Hannibal is the first to get at the ideological and aspirational components of a citizenry involved in science.

"Citizen science is not only about collecting data; it's about making a bridge between nature's drama and people like me. The hopeful sense is that if people like me observe what’s happening up close and personal, and start to see patterns, then we will all be galvanized to do more to help nature."

Citizen science is not a new pursuit. In fact, Hannibal identifies historical citizen scientists from Charles Darwin to Alexander von Humboldt, from Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the California botanists Alice Eastwood and John Thomas Howell, and well-known conservationists Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck.

Hannibal sees today's citizen scientists as a group that can document ongoing extinctions and perhaps gain the knowledge required to reduce extinction rates through conservation efforts. By going behind the scenes at a number of organizations (e.g., Google Earth Outreach, the California Academy of Sciences, Save the Redwoods League), Hannibal not only shows us how many citizen science programs are out there and how many people are involved, but also provides somewhat of a roadmap for creating a successful citizen science project.

While Hannibal is a great writer, the book itself is somewhat unwieldy, and it's difficult to find the narrative thread that ties the book together. Even though Hannibal has limited herself to a fairly small geographic area, and to citizen science in the life sciences in particular, there's still so much information—from natural history to scientific history plus what's happening in the present day—that it's hard to synthesize it all in one book. The inclusion of the death of her father is also difficult to reconcile with the rest of the book, though Hannibal clearly sees parallels between his death and her citizen science work: "not only has my father disappeared, life itself would seem to be disappearing."

To make the most of the book, therefore, I've decided to focus on key things we can learn about citizen science, from how to make the data collected useable to how to keep volunteers engaged. For researchers interested in getting involved in citizen science, it's good to know what you're getting into, as evidenced by this tweet:

1. Citizen science in society

Hannibal suggests that citizen science is an antidote to the colonial approach to research, where scientists push their results on local peoples. So-called 'extreme' citizen science (also called 'co-creation') is when a researcher actively works with a specific group to shape a project. The importance of co-created projects is that they "fundamentally question what science is, who gets to do it, and what it is for." When working with First Nations, it "serves as a form of environmental justice and a way to heal from colonization."

Hannibal also sees citizen science as a way to enhance democracy, by getting people invested in their communities and by developing a scientifically literate society that understands the importance of science. When people participate in citizen science, they see and experience things firsthand, which can be more useful than just looking at data. Citizen science is also a form of open data and open science: once crowdsourced data are uploaded to an application like iNaturalist, for example, anyone can access it. It's important to note, however, that while geospatial mapping tools and associated apps have revolutionized the widespread collection of environmental data (e.g., iNaturalist, eBird, SpotterPro), they still require observations from an engaged public to populate their databases.

2. How do we ensure citizen science is useable science?

"Citizen scientists are frequently asked to do what research scientists do all the time in the field, which is count things up and/or measure things within the confines of a transect."

But are citizen scientists really collecting quality scientific data? Hannibal writes about the California Academy of Sciences, which decided to run citizen science projects that would not only maintain competitive science but also connect with the public. To that end, citizen science projects must determine in advance how the data will be used and use that information to map exactly how data need to be collected to reach that goal. Or as USGS bee scientist Sam Droege recommends to Hannibal: "Talk to a statistician first, and then design your study." Hannibal also recommends that researchers think big and consider the whole picture when running a citizen science project rather than doing it ‘on the side.’ Of course the key component is training: once you have citizens interested in working on your science, you'll need to train them in the specific tasks they'll be doing, whether that's inventorying plants along different transects or identifying birds passing a particular location. If you need some pointers the USDA has developed a handbook for researchers specifically working in biological monitoring.

3. How does citizen science help conservation science?

By collecting long-term observations at specific sites, Hannibal notes that citizen science can be a bulwark against the problem of shifting baselines, as it provides irrefutable data about changes in species populations over time. Once enough data have been collected, researchers can begin to identify patterns and form hypotheses as to what might be driving those patterns.

Citizen science can also help identify ecological tipping points and provide baseline inventory data against which to assess any negative events. As Hannibal notes, "after the Valdez oil spill, Exxon successfully argued that they should pay relatively low damages in response to bird mortality because no one could prove how many birds had been around before it happened." Citizen science can also contribute to protecting and/or restoring habitat, for example through identifying, monitoring, and removing invasive species like volunteers are doing at Canada's Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve.

4. How do we recruit citizen scientists and keep them engaged?

Hannibal is adamant that citizen science be about more than just collecting data. Participants will be more involved if they can contribute to protecting and/or restoring habitat and gain new knowledge. As with most science communication, the public is engaged by the telling of stories not just the sharing of data. Therefore, scientists should tell the story of the science behind the work and outline how it contributes to understanding the bigger picture. Many citizen science projects have a community aspect, usually a combination of training courses and/or community events outside of the work itself. In some cases, projects have a charismatic leader who keeps people informed and engaged through regular communication such as a newsletter. Some citizen science projects affiliated with the federal government even provide workers' compensation coverage for volunteers.

5. Are you cut out to be a citizen scientist?

Hannibal quotes researcher Julia Parrish, head of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), on her ideal citizen scientist. "I'm looking for the person who is fascinated by the normal. I want the person who walks out not with histrionic anticipation but with a quiet sense of 'I wonder what I'm going to see today.'"

Serious citizen scientists usually distill down to a small group of committed people who are highly place-based and invested in their community. Indigenous peoples note that " established through observances and actions on behalf of the natural world." The same could apply to citizen scientists: as you observe the natural world at the same location year after year, you build a geolocated identity, a sense of place.

Remember that citizen science isn't always fun. It can be boring, you have to go out in all weather, and you may not feel like doing it when your turn rolls around again. The key is to select a task that suits you. For example, Hannibal joined the bird capture part of the Hawkwatch program but didn't enjoy catching birds; she realized she could contribute more effectively if she stayed with the bird identification group.


Hannibal's book is about so much more than being a citizen scientist. It's about being a thinking, caring being in a natural world that seems to be careening out of control. In Hannibal's hands, citizen science becomes both an anchor and a spotlight to help us through these difficult times.

To learn more follow #CitSci2017 May 17 to 20 during the second meeting of the Citizen Science Association.

Sarah Boon
has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also a founding member of Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro

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