ESRC Future Research Leader Award


Citizen science is an activity that is becoming increasingly important as demand for data on biodiversity outstrips the capacity of professional scientists (in terms of finance and manpower). Working in partnership with Forest Research (Britain’s principal organization for forestry research), the Sylva Foundation (a charitable trust promoting wood culture) and the Science Museum (internationally-renowned institution engaging citizens with science and technology), my ESRC-funded project (2012-15) addresses the need for new ways of harnessing citizen enthusiasm in order to develop a sustainable citizen science for tree health monitoring.

Citizen science is defined as data collection by non-scientists for scientific projects. Since the mid 19th century, volunteers, amateurs and enthusiasts have participated in citizen science. In the 21st-century, citizens are leading the way in monitoring risk and environmental change, for example recording radiation levels following the recent earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan. They are mixing an interest in science with new technologies and traditional enthusiasms.

The sophistication of smartphones and developments within web technology, such as Flickr, Facebook, Google Maps, Wikis and blogs, have increased the breadth and depth of potential participation and interest. However, the role of technology in citizen science and sustaining participation has yet to be fully understood or utilised.

Tracing the new ‘Tree Health Surveillance Framework’ for Britain through participant observation and semi-structured interviews with citizen scientists, scientists, technicians and users of citizen data, as well as international comparative research on citizen monitoring projects in Australia (a leader in biosecurity), this research asks:

1. Why do citizens participate in scientific projects?
2. What role does technology play in citizen science?
3. How is citizen data valued by scientists and other users?
4. What potential is there for citizens to act as early-warning systems for the movements of biologically invasive species attacking trees?