Citizen science on the endless frontier

To the uninitiated, science can seem specialised beyond reach. But armed with affordable new technologies, and a bit of creativity, ordinary people are discovering their inner researcher.

Citizen science can take the form of programs that enlist the public to participate in research for conservation.   NPS Photo  (public domain)

Citizen science can take the form of programs that enlist the public to participate in research for conservation. NPS Photo (public domain)


What does a high schooler sampling the ocean for radioactive contaminants have in common with 300 members of the public creating a water study in Flint, Michigan, and a guy starting his own lab that hosts biohacking workshops in LA? All are part of a massive upswell in citizen science, a surge of people doing science rather than admiring it from a distance, according to David Lang.

Lang, co-founder of underwater robot community OpenROV, links the surge to the maker movement that began five years ago when low-cost tools like micro controllers, 3D printers and laser cutters became available, allowing people to start tinkering and building robots at home. “I’m not so sure this next wave is a revolution in science, but I think it has the potential to be the next environmental movement,” he said.  

Standing on the shoulders of birders

The term citizen science was newly included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014 and defined as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” Though this particular term has only recently been recognised, activities like this began 117 years ago with the advent of official bird counts, when binocular-toting birders showed up across the US to count waterbirds on Christmas, a tradition that still exists today.

Since then, these hobbyists have lent to a surprising majority of credible and peer-reviewed ornithological data, and the contribution of this data to global research is far greater than one might expect. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) found that “more than half the central claims about the impacts of climate change on avian migration were based on studies that depended on data from citizen scientists.” PLoS findings suggest that citizen science is as reliable as academic or industrial-grade data.

Hobby birders contribute a large amount of data to scientific research.   ashokboghani/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Hobby birders contribute a large amount of data to scientific research. ashokboghani/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


Bolstered by legions of do-it-yourself scientists who have a passion for collecting bird data, the field of ornithology is supported by individuals with little in the way of expectations for professional accolades. This type of passionate interest and pro bono work has since spawned global networks of many other kinds of explorers, fish-o-philes, sea star lovers and coral buffs — all driven by the force of curiosity. 

OpenROV: Into the deep with cheaper equipment

Take the example of tinkerers David Lang and Eric Stackpole, who co-founded OpenROV. The pair built their first underwater remote operated vehicle (ROV) in 2012. Looking to solve the problem of cost-prohibitive equipment, they built a cheaper, lower cost underwater camera for fun, and took it out on quests to find sunken treasure in a cave.

Eric Stackpole of OpenROV with their latest design, the Trident, in San Francisco March 2017. Note the game controller and the laptop, which displays tele-robotic views of what lies beneath the pier.   ©  Jennie Rose (used with permission)

Eric Stackpole of OpenROV with their latest design, the Trident, in San Francisco March 2017. Note the game controller and the laptop, which displays tele-robotic views of what lies beneath the pier. © Jennie Rose (used with permission)

The treasure? Not in the cave, but out in plain sight in the form of market interest in what they had built. If good timing is the boon so many stories would have us believe, then these two struck gold. Lang, who is a canny blend of naked ambition with possibilianism, seems to think so. “We’re now part of something much bigger,” he said. “We’re transitioning from hobbyist to a global ocean sensing network.”

After enormous response from the community on the OpenROV forum, Lang and Stackpole saw it as opportune timing to work on a second design. Enter the Trident. This model is a more agile ROV that can be operated with a game controller, with features like a three-thruster design that allows for delicate maneuvers, and custom modifications like lighting systems and water samplers. The two have even considered adding sonar to use in murky water.  

It’s important to note that new tools like these stand at the ledge of disruptive technology. Whatever its intended use, an underwater drone has potential to cause unintended harm. More can go wrong between a coral reef and a weekend warrior with a robot than a birder with a pair of binoculars. 

Lang acknowledges the risks, saying they intend to create cultural norms for users of OpenROV to prevent, for example, spreading of microbes. “It’s one thing just to create the technology, but we really do have to use it responsibly,” he said. Lang and Stackpole ask users to sterilise their robots after each use to prevent microbial transports between bodies of water. They advise users to rinse their robots in a little bleach water between uses. Simple! Yet In the absence of such protocols, the risk to fragile habitats like reefs could be quite serious.

Reef Life Restoration: Rebuilding the ocean’s bone structure

Another example of citizen science can be found in reef restoration efforts. Reefs are a literal life support — algae housed by reef structures produces 90% of our oxygen. This explains federal mandates for coral protection like the 2008 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Compensatory Mitigation Rule. But reportedly, these mandates have been hard to enforce. And with the EPA now on the chopping block, coral protections may cease to exist altogether. What better time for private sector innovations to step in to address the loss of this crucial life support?

So far, attempts to rebuild lost reef structure have been poorly conceived, according to Melody Brenna, CEO and co-founder of Reef Life Restoration. “People have tried sinking ships, throwing used tires or concrete in the ocean,” she said. “Solutions didn’t come from science. They came from convenience.”

Rather than sinking ships, Brenna and her team have been working on building casts that mimic the complex structure and growth compositions of natural coral reefs.  She describes their work as restoring “the ocean’s bone structure,” reminding us that reefs are made of the same calcium carbonate as human bones.

Reef Life Restoration has been in the design and testing process for years. Guyon Brenna, Melody’s son, designed his first set of 3D reef models in high school. Now a 23 year old architecture student, Guyon has patented the only reef acreage system with biocompatible coral cell surface textures and diverse mineral formulations.

Three months ago, divers and marine biology students with the University of Hawaii planted sensitive coral polyps the size of poppy seeds using the reef modules they have created. It will take a year of monitoring the gestating polyps before they will know whether the latest experiment has been a success. 

Artificial reefs have previously been made out of convenient, rather than carefully designed, materials.   Scott Moore/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Artificial reefs have previously been made out of convenient, rather than carefully designed, materials. Scott Moore/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


The future of citizen science

Restoration of reef life is one of the survival-driven sciences of the 21st century. When we consider the future of biodiversity, conservation and the environment, is citizen science really going to help?

As we tip into the harsher climate of new budget cuts in the US, it seems to be so. While in 2016 former US President Barack Obama created the world’s largest marine reserve in Hawaii, in March 2017 National Ocean Atmospheric Academy funding was cut by a billion dollars, its sea grant program gutted. 

In light of these and potential future budget cuts, DIYers who skirt traditional funding cycles are well positioned to survive in this atmosphere. “We’re seeing grad students and postdocs using our tools to do their own research,” says Lang. “Pick a discipline, pick a tool and you can find a group or a person working on something.”

Examples of these kind of DIY projects are endlessly variable in their creativity and resourcefulness. Take for instance Cory Tobin, founder of DIY bio lab TheLab in LA, who started a project to identify an oxygen-tolerant nitrogenase in soil microbes. Or divers who built a 3D map of the Caribbean monk seal habitat, a habitat no other scientist has up to now been able to map.

But we have to be careful. Not all rising Jacque Cousteaus of the world know they need to tread lightly. Just like not all divers know that a reef that takes 200 years to grow can be irreparably damaged by one drop of an anchor. Absence of knowledge about these habitats could be potentially catastrophic, but providing training in habitat sensitivity may help.Inspiration can be drawn from initiatives like the Green Fins of the United Nations Environmental Programme, implemented in 2004, which provides best practices to reduce the impact of diving and snorkeling to diving centres around the world. Education for users of new technology, like that provided by OpenROV in using bleach on the equipment, will hopefully curb any threat to the environment.

As we raise the level of public discourse about climate change, networks for exploring our biological world keep growing.  When scientific processes and equipment become less rarified and more affordable, and the risks are managed well, it’s nearly perfect conditions to paddle out to meet the endless frontier in citizen science and ride down the face of the next wave of environmentalism.

Edited by Deborah Kane