view of a citizen scientist and biologist working together on water analysis


When we think of scientists, most of us think of college graduates working in laboratories on very important projects for the government or large corporations. Not many of us think of the retired bricklayer next door who likes to garden, or the 10-year-old girl who is fascinated by birds. We talk to two “citizen scientist” advocates about the importance of having average citizens be the eyes and ears of large research projects, and how anyone can find a science project they can help advance in the world.

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  • Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of the book Citizen Scientist: Searching for heroes and hope in an age of extinction
  • Geoff LeBaron is the director of the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count

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Citizen Scientists

Gary Price: These days in schools, the big push for the curriculum is for more study of science and math. We want our kids to be well versed in these subjects so they can move on to college and then to good-paying jobs when they graduate. But you don’t need a degree in botany, biology, physics or math to be a scientist – millions of Americans do science every day without one. These are “citizen scientists” and they make a big difference in how we see the world. In fact, many of the most famous observers in history weren’t professional scientists at all.

Mary Ellen Hannibal: Aristotle was a citizen scientist. No advanced degree, no institution that he was involved with and he made some very astute observations of nature and some very mistaken ones.

Price: That’s Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of the book Citizen Scientist: Searching for heroes and hope in an age of extinction.

Hannibal: Charles Darwin was a citizen scientist. Again, no advanced degree, no institution, and he made voluminous notes, voluminous observations and he cogitated on what he saw and he came up with ideas. Now he really came up with ideas that citizen science, starting with some of those Victorian amateurs — and I like the word amateur because it’s from the Latin meaning “to love,” and this is something that we need to rekindle in our hearts is our love for nature that gets us out doing this – those amateurs accumulated vast stores of observations with which scientists still are able to really make some interesting observations about how life works to begin with and then how it changing with climate change and other global impacts.

Price: Hannibal says that today, citizen scientists’ work is necessary for collecting data on everything from lilac bush budding dates to bird migrations to salmon spawning behavior. The collection of data by millions of amateurs around the world is more important now than it was even 15 years ago, because we finally have the means to gather, arrange and analyze data in a meaningful way.

Hannibal: It’s about Big Data. It’s not a new kind of science but it has boomed because we have smartphone technology, we have massive computing power we didn’t have before, and more sophisticated statistical analysis than we had before. And statistics is about making predications. So it’s a different kind of science than what we talk about with hypothesis testing where you have a question and you come up with an experiment; you do your experiment, you see what your result is; what did it say about your question and then if that experiment and those results can be replicated, and then if you write a scientific paper about it and it gets published, that’s what we usually call “science.”

Price: There are hundreds of examples of citizen science projects going on around the country at any one time. Hannibal came upon a very simple, yet effective, one in her own back yard.

Hannibal: I can actually tell you a really great story about a really scrappy little citizen science outfit called “Spawn” which is here in the Bay Area. And in Marin County we have a Coho salmon run. Coho salmon are on the endangered species list, and most of where our local Coho salmon do their thing, which a pretty long and involved process of moving through the aquatic system, most of that is on protected land, but a portion of it goes right through the heart of some of Marin County’s towns. And this little organization has been able to show those towns that they need to pull their development plans back, I think it’s only like 13 feet from the creek sides, and just doing that allows the Coho salmon to fulfill their migrational and reproductive destinies.

Price: Hannibal says that we all need to be concerned now with the changing environment and the way it’s affecting plants and animals. It might surprise you to know that we’re experiencing an age of extinction that’s almost as bad as the dinosaurs disappearing. And it’s not just the polar bears or African lions that you see on nature documentaries that are being affected either.

Hannibal: All wild species numbers have been vastly reduced, even in the last 40 years. And there’s a couple of big studies that have shown this. There’s many bird studies. There’s one billion fewer birds on the planet than there were just, like, 40 years ago. Some of these species don’t get on the endangered species list because of the way that list is evaluated. And it’s more that the populations of species are shrinking. The good news is that this is where you and I can get to work where we live to help document what species are living with us, near us; which ones are passing through as they migrate, and to take local action to help them keep on keeping on.

Price: One of the biggest and best-known citizen scientist events is coming up – the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Geoff LeBaron is director of this effort and says it’s been around for, well, longer than anyone listening to this program.

Geoff LeBaron: The Christmas Bird Count was started actually on Christmas Day of 1900, and it was as an alternative activity to a thing that was traditionally called the Side Hunt, where people would go out and choose sides and hunt everything. And the Side Hunt was really falling out of favor in the late 1800s, but because there was also a growing conservation awareness, what Frank Chapman who was an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, he proposed to do a Christmas Bird Census as he called it the first year rather than the Christmas Bird Hunt. And it’s literally been done every year since then. So it started in 1900 and this will be the 117th year, this upcoming season.

Price: LeBaron says that the Bird Count has changed over time and adapted its data collection and analysis techniques to use advances in smartphone and database technology. Even with all the data collection innovations around though, the basic “eyes on the sky” are it’s most important tools.

LeBaron: All Christmas Bird Counts are done within a proscribed 15-mile diameter circle. It’s 177 square miles within that circle. And the areas are usually divided up into subsectors and each group that goes out in the field is responsible for running a route or a couple of routes within their area of coverage, and they actually keep track of the hours and miles that they’re putting in during the course of the day. And once they’re done with their area they don’t continue to count birds in the areas where other people have been counting. And what they do as they’re moving through those areas is they count all the birds that they see or hear on that day in their area. And then at the end of the day representatives, or maybe everybody from the count depending upon how many people are involved, get together for a compilation gathering which oftentimes includes a potluck dinner or maybe hosted at a restaurant or a house, and they actually come up with the master list of the full results for the whole circle.

Price: For those who want to participate but can’t get out to walk around outside in December, LeBaron says there are also bird feeder counters whose findings add to the total. He adds that in the past, professional scientists and researchers were hesitant to use data from the amateur birders, but because their methodology is so refined, they’ve come to accept the results for birds and other fields as well.

LeBaron: The really gratifying thing over the last 15 to 20 years has been the great acceptance of citizen science data set by researchers. And one of the reasons they have made that leap to accepting citizen science data is because of the statistical methods that we’ve developed – Audubon and the people down at USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center – in ways of analyzing citizen data – not specifically the Christmas Bird Count although that’s what they were utilizing when they developed these methods – but they’re applicable to other citizen science fields as well and it enabled researchers to actually study citizen science data sets from all sorts of different fields.

Price: Anyone with interests from astronomy to flowering trees to mammals can become part of an observational scientific team by Googling the “Nature’s Notebook” website and choosing an activity from their list. There’s even an opportunity to help in research about lilac bushes which could hold the key to weathering climate change.

Hannibal: There’s a climate scientist at Cornell, his name is Toby Alt. And Toby Alt is asking a question. He’s looking at lilac bushes and as he explained it to me, lilacs have been around for millions of years. The have survived major ice ages; they’ve survive huge climatic changes similar in magnitude to the one we’re undergoing now. And as he said to me, “I want to know what the lilacs know.” He says they’re obviously picking up a signal from the environment ahead of the total change that’s allowing them to modify how they get along in the world in order to adapt to new conditions. And this is exciting, right? Because we could learn what the lilacs know and it could help us adapt more fully and more comfortably as our own world undergoes this very rapid change.

Price: Following lilac bush budding and animal migration and extinction is interesting, but does it rise to the level of “crucial”? After all, climates have changed and animals have moved around and gone extinct for eons, and we’re still here. Hannibal says that this is true but we can help ourselves and the planet live longer and healthier if we keep our eyes on the changes. That way we can mitigate the damage extinctions and deforestation can do – such as new viruses like Zika that are affecting humans.

Hannibal: The animals, let’s say, that were in the forest that the virus lived in, those animals had co-evolved over time with the virus to not be killed by it hurt by it. So they carried it without being affected by it. Then, you know, there’s no big animal host left anymore for the virus. The virus says, “Where’s another big, warm body? Oh, humans,” because we have more and more humans on the earth. And that’s what happens when you lose the habitat and you lose the other species. It speeds up this conveyor belt of some diseases to human carriers. And we’re going to see more scary things like Zika as a result of more extinction of other animals and plants.

Price: You can read up on Mary Ellen Hannibal’s research on average people doing science in their own communities and how it affects our world in her book, Citizen Scientist, available now. She also invites listeners to her website at Mary Ellen To learn more about the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which takes place every year from December 14th through January 5th, and to sign up in your area, Geoff LeBaron says just visit their website at, or get in touch with a local birding organization. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.