The vital role of citizen science

Dog rose – one of many species recorded by Nature’s Calendar enthusiasts

For the past 14 years, enthusiastic volunteers have been helping track changes in seasonal natural events through Nature’s Calendar, adding thousands of records to the UK Phenology Network database. Faithfully, they have observed and recorded when trees come into leaf or flower in spring, when migrant birds arrive and leave, and have spent their autumn days noting when leaves change colour, then fall, or when fruit ripens. The data is being used by students and scientists across the UK, and even further afield, to research the implications of climate change for our natural world.

These recorders are part of a tradition that goes back much further, starting with Robert Marsham, who began recording his ‘Indications of Spring’ back in 1736 on his family estate near Norwich, Norfolk, and continued to record for 62 years. From 1875 until 1947 the Royal Meteorological Society co-ordinated a nation-wide network of recorders to examine the relationship between meteorological events and the natural world.

How much store should we set by records collected by amateurs in this way? Well, we value them very highly, and a recent paper[i] published in the scientific journal Nature bears us out.

A group of scientists in the US has found that experimental models are failing to accurately predict the effects of climate change on plants, producing results that differ from the observational phenology data. This could be because experimental approaches that try to mimic the impacts of nature fail to take into account all the complex interactions between different factors that occur in real life.

They conclude that observational data is crucially important; mass participation projects like Nature’s Calendar produce a large body of such observational data that can help build up a relatively accurate picture over time. So this kind of “Citizen Science” doesn’t just get people outdoors enjoying nature – though this is one of its great selling points – it also has genuine scientific credibility.

However, the more recorders, the better the data. It’s easy to sign up to be a Nature’s Calendar recorder, and it brings the satisfaction of knowing you’re producing data that is part of a vital global picture.

[i] Wolkovich, E. M. et al. (2012) Warming experiments underpredict plant responses to climate change. Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11014,published online 2 May 2012.

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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16 Responses to The vital role of citizen science

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  6. Particularly great article on The vital role of citizen science | Woodland Matters!
    Always keep blogging..

  7. Pingback: Citizen science data: addressing important questions on the future of UK woods and trees | Woodland Matters

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  12. DrHG says:

    Reblogged this on The Culture of Enthusiasm and commented:
    More grist for the mill in terms of the value of citizen science to environmental knowledge. However, it is not simply a case of citizen scientists contributing ‘raw data’, but also framing the questions to be asked. Identifying the risks, challenges and changes, collaborating with paid scientists to identify potential responses too. Great post!

    • Kay Haw says:

      Brilliant, thank you! I have just had a good look at your blog and really enjoyed your own citizen science post. I hope this heralds an era of greater public involvement, giving people a feeling that everyone can get involved and that science is accessible to all.
      I am also on Twitter @Earthhaw

  13. DrHG says:

    Fantastic post (as always). I’ve tweeted your blog (I’m @drhg). I’m interested in your use of the term ‘citizen science’. I wonder if we re-brand efforts in the direction of citizen science, rather than amateur naturalists we might see a change in the uptake? This is more of a comment, I am just thinking about the power of terminology really.

  14. Reblogged this on naturestimeline and commented:
    The best way to observe nature is to follow the changing seasons. I subscribe to many blogs, of which the Woodland Trust is one. Their latest post reblogged above, illustrates how many folk are becoming highly valued citizen scientists.

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