Presenters – Plenary

To frame conversations throughout this two-day event, we invited a small number of speakers to offer cutting edge ideas and advance our thinking about the field of public participation in scientific research.


A team of advisors offered invaluable help to identify speakers from diverse disciplines and perspectives. View presentations and watch videos of the plenary speakers at the 2012 PPSR Conference below. Please see the conference program for additional details.

Looking Back, Moving Forward in PPSR

Abe Miller-Rushing

Science Coordinator, National Park Service, Acadia National Park and Schoodic Education and Research Center

PLENARY 0.1 – Public Participation in Scientific Research: How We Got Here and Where We Go Now

Public participation in scientific research has a long history. In fact, over much of history people without formal training in science were responsible for most of the science being done. Public participation still contributes key scientific insights today. Until recently, these contributions were overlooked by much of the scientific community and the public, but that is changing quickly. The number of projects designed explicitly to engage the public in the scientific process has exploded in recent years. These projects span most fields of science—from astronomy to ecology to public health to weather. Unfortunately, it is generally difficult for people working in these different fields to communicate with one another, an obstacle that greatly limits the spread of innovations, research results, and evidence-based best practices. With this conference, we hope to facilitate communication across these fields, spur new collaborations, insights, and innovations, and help to formalize PPSR as a field of study.

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William Michener

Professor and Director of e-Science Initiatives, University Libraries and DataONE, University of New Mexico

PLENARY 0.2 – Grand Challenges and Big Data: Implications for Public Participation in Scientific Research

We are entering a new era of science and scholarship that is increasingly being driven by grand challenge research questions. This is exemplified in the environmental sciences, where the scope and nature of biological, environmental, and earth sciences research are evolving in response to environmental challenges such as global climate change, invasive species, and emergent diseases. Scientific studies, as a consequence, are increasingly focusing on long-term, broad-scale, and complex questions. Large volumes of diverse data collected by remote-sensing platforms, embedded environmental sensor networks, and citizen science programs are required to address such issues. In addition, new approaches are necessary for supporting the underlying research and data life cycles.

In particular, we must change the ways that we do science by: harnessing the enormity of existing data; developing new methods to combine, analyze, and visualize diverse data resources; creating new, long-lasting cyberinfrastructure; and re-envision many of our longstanding scientific institutions and approaches. Solutions lie in collaboration and coordination (i.e., building networks and networks of networks); supporting open science; engaging the public and the relevant science, library, data, and policy communities; facilitating easy, secure, and persistent storage of data; and developing and disseminating integrated and user-friendly tools for data discovery, analysis, visualization, and decision-making.

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Heidi Ballard

Associate Professor of Environmental Science Education, University of California, Davis

PLENARY 0.3 – People and Participation: Educational and Community Components of PPSR Projects

Thousands of individuals and hundreds of communities give their time, energy, and expertise in PPSR projects every year, in a wide variety of contexts and disciplines This human investment is central to the success of PPSR, and thus, the social, political, and educational aspects of PPSR deserve critical, interdisciplinary discussions on par with discussions of the natural sciences pursued through these partnerships. What do individuals gain from participation in these endeavors? And what are the community-level benefits when large numbers of people participate in the same region, for example in conservation or environmental justice projects, adding to our scientific knowledge while taking action for their communities? As practitioners and researchers of PPSR in education, natural sciences, and social justice, we can consider how our work connects to, impacts, expands and inspires work beyond traditional disciplines and networks.

Using a framework that attempts to capture the range of ways and contexts in which people may participate across scientific disciplines, we can examine both scientific and participant objectives and outcomes. Specifically, the degree and quality of PPSR participation in different types of projects may affect the benefits to public participants, science, and larger social-ecological systems. As an example, looking across a diverse range of PPSR projects in Northern California allows an examination of how participation impacts individuals in terms of their science and environmental learning, and potentially yields “cumulative impacts” on local communities and landscapes. As the field of PPSR grows and we build a dialogue across disciplines, we have the opportunity to look beyond project-level impacts and to examine comparative impacts, processes, and practices across many PPSR projects.

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PPSR’s Contribution to Science

Terry Root

Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University

PLENARY 1.1 – To Use or Not To Use: Is That the Data?

When studies are focused on a local area and a short time scale, then data can be collected by the scientist conducting the study. When looking at regional or larger patterns over a decade or more, data need to be collected by numerous people, often volunteers. There are many different types of data that have been collected in non-traditional manners. These include data collected: on one species at one location over a long period of time, such as the Marsham records in England beginning in 1736; on one species at many locations throughout its range over numerous years, such as nesting by Tree Swallows across North America; and on many species at numerous locations over decades, such as the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count Data. Of course, before using any data that you have not collected yourself, it must be validated as accurate. For example, the Christmas Bird Count Data for species that are very rare, such as Peregrine Falcons, or very gregarious, such as wintering Snow Geese, have been shown to often times be reported inaccurately. Therefore, use of such data should be avoided. Data that are deemed accurate can and have provided valuable insights about spatial and/or temporal changes in species that could not be determined without such data. For example, studies showing how species are affected by climate change necessitate data being collected over broad spatial and long temporal scales.

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Nolan Doesken

Colorado Climate Center, Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University

PLENARY 1.2 – The Role of “Citizen Science” in Weather and Climate Research

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network (CoCoRaHS) has been welcomed by scientists, in part, because it fills critical data gaps every day. Accurate precipitation data with high granularity aids weather and climate researchers in several ways. Research to improve hydrometeorological prediction, precipitation estimates by radar and by satellite, numerical weather prediction, crop yield forecasting and many ecological and physical process models all benefit from reliable high resolution precipitation data. But the use of citizen science in weather and climate research goes back much further. What we know today about local and regional climate patterns, climate variability and trends can largely be attributed to the National Weather Service’s (and formerly the U.S. Weather Bureau’s) “Cooperative Network.” This nationwide network of thousands of volunteers dates back to 1890 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over weather responsibilities from the U.S. Signal Service (War Department). Citizen observations form the basis of most of what we know about rainfall frequency, intensity and duration and “design temperatures” — critical design factors for commercial and residential construction, transportation and communication systems and much more. Efforts to organize volunteers to help assess the climate resources of the early United States date back to the early 1800s. The network begun by Joseph Henry — the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution — had great impact. This presentation will provide a perspective on how public participation has advanced the fields of weather and climate for fully 200 years.

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Seth Cooper

Creative Director, Center for Game Science, University of Washington

PLENARY 1.3 – Foldit and Games for Scientific Discovery

Foldit is a multiplayer online game that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of players to participate in and contribute to biochemistry research. In this talk, I’ll discuss how the game works, who’s playing, what they’ve been able to accomplish, and where games and science are headed.

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Linda Silka

Director, Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and Professor, School of Economics, University of Maine

PLENARY 1.4 – Community-Based Participatory Research: A Rigorous Approach Contributing to Science

Across many types of research, there is growing public participation in scientific investigation. One rapidly growing approach is community-based participatory research (CBPR). I will highlight the efforts in this area and describe the ways that CBPR has been successful in: (1) strengthening scientific outcomes, (2) adding rigor to participatory data collection, (3) ensuring that groups participate in ways that enhance the likelihood of research findings being implemented. Impacts on research design and research findings will be highlighted. The steps that some federal funding agencies are now taking to revise their review procedures to support the collaborative process in designing rigorous research will be described. International efforts to increase CBPR will be mentioned. A summary of resources on this form of public participation in research will be disseminated.

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Outcomes for and Benefits to Participants

Tina Phillips

Evaluation Program Manager, Department of Program Development and Evaluation, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

PLENARY 2.1 -  Building Evaluation Capacity for Public Participation in Scientific Research

Public participation in scientific research (PPSR) is commonly depicted as a methodology that engages volunteers in professional research aimed at answering important scientific questions. Undeniably, the dedication of hundreds of thousands of volunteers has added immeasurably to our knowledge base. Yet, despite the success of these projects to collect high quality, scientifically relevant data, we are only just starting to understand the participant experience. For example, what motivates participants to engage in these efforts? What are they learning about the process of science as a result of their participation? How does engagement influence environmental stewardship practices? Citizen science provides numerous opportunities to explore these questions, but up until now, there has been little effort to conduct evaluations in a systematic way, thereby preventing any type of cross-programmatic analysis that would further advance our understanding of citizen science impacts. This presentation will discuss the importance of evaluating learning outcomes as a means of better understanding and improving volunteer satisfaction, recruitment, and retention and offer a preliminary look at an upcoming framework and online toolkit for evaluating PPSR learning outcomes.

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Kris Stepenuck

WI Water Action Volunteers Stream Monitoring Program Coordinator, University of Wisconsin-Extension and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

PLENARY 2.2 – Understanding the connection between participant motivations and program outcomes for most effective program design

Outcomes of citizen science programs are many and varied, ranging from increased awareness and knowledge of participants to financial savings for sponsoring organizations. Research has suggested that participants’ motivations for participating in citizen science activities often are altruistic – in that they wish to help a cause or help fill a data gap so that a question can be answered. Indeed, such outcomes have resulted; Environmental improvements and new scientific discoveries have been made based on citizens’ efforts. However, certainly not all programs have reached their intended goals, and many program coordinators probably ask themselves if what they are doing has resulted in something that is useful overall and/or meaningful to participants.

Scientists have recently begun to explore characteristics of citizen science programs that enable them to most effectively achieve intended outcomes. However, more research is needed to better understand characteristics of these programs to best enable them to succeed in reaching their intended goals, especially as related to needs of participants. This presentation is designed to provide an overview of the types of outcomes that have resulted from citizen science efforts, with focus on those outcomes that are of particular interest to participants, as well as to spark considerate thinking about what we have yet to explore in this realm, in hopes of generating research across disciplines that can benefit both participants and programs.

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Christopher W. Shelley

Instructor, US and American Indian History, Portland Community College

PLENARY 2.3 – Indian Country 101: Tribal Communities as Partners in Environmental Restoration

In recent years, western-trained natural resource managers have come to recognize that the ecological knowledge accumulated by indigenous people is potentially valuable to their projects. Whereas years ago traditional knowledge was considered merely hearsay or apocryphal, many non-Indian scientists working in the American West now regard it as a source of valuable data. Moreover, tribes like the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have, because of their reserved treaty rights, legal standing in natural resource issues that non-Indians do not enjoy. However, these resources are not well understood by many non-Indian biologists, and so little attempt has been made to partner with tribes on environmental issues crucial to Indian and non-Indian alike. Years of severe distrust and radically different cultural backgrounds make forging partnerships difficult. But for eight years, from 1994 to 2002, an environmental youth corps called Salmon Corps bridged this gap between cultures in unprecedented ways. While Salmon Corps no longer exists, the potential for meaningful partnerships does. The Salmon Corps experience shows how to engage and acquire the good will and assistance of tribal people—goodwill that provided non-Indian managers with resources for their projects, and led to corpsmembers becoming natural resource managers for their tribe. At the heart of this lesson is the idea that non-Indians deal with tribal people on their own terms. This experience straddling the two worlds exemplified by Salmon Corps provides clues about how to approach potential tribal partners for projects that benefit all.

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Rajul Pandya,

Director, Spark: UCAR Science Education, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

PLENARY 2.4 – Citizen Science: Science as if People Mattered

Evidence suggests that the American public is turning away from science. The US ranks 23rd in international science tests, only 70% of Americans can read and understand the science section of the NY Times, investment in research is declining, and US students are avoiding science majors.

This disconnect may be a side effect of our current ‘loading dock’ model for doing science, where we assume an orderly one-way flow from discovery to impact. This model, and its accompanying practices (like glamorizing theoretical work, emphasizing peer-communication, and organizing investigation around disciplines) have isolated scientists and science from the rest of society.

We need to build a new, bi-directional model for doing science that explicitly connects research to applications and engages communities as partners. Instead of the one-way dissemination of discipline-based expertise, we need problem-driven investigations that involve communities as partners in every step from defining research questions to applying co-created knowledge. The model has implications for how we train and reward scientists, how we engage non-scientists, and what kind of knowledge we consider relevant.

This talk is meant to spark a discussion about how to use citizen science to catalyze this new model, since it is rooted in the values and practices of citizen science. In particular, citizen science can be the test-bed and tipping point for participatory approaches, where community members are partners in the design, implementation, and application of research, where research is aligned with community priorities, and where scientific knowledge is placed along side other ways of knowing.

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The Role of PPSR in Integrating Social and Ecological Systems

Ben Duncan

Policy Analyst, Multnomah County Environmental Health

PLENARY 3.1 – Community-based Citizen Science: The Importance of Mixed Methods for Inclusion and Engagement

Working at both the public health and community based non-profit levels, “citizen science” as a term and as a concept has different meanings depending on the collection and use of data to advocate for change. By exploring models used by Government and Environmental Justice Organizations, participants can understand both the opportunities for increasing engagement of communities in the development and distribution of data, and the importance of mixed methodologies, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative data to assure that data can best support community-driven action. This discussion will center on issues of “credibility” and the importance of data to create policy change through the often very different lenses of community members, academics, and policy-makers.

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Owen Boyle

Citizen-based Monitoring Coordinator, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

PLENARY 3.2 – The Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network: Integrating Social and Ecological Systems Through the Principles of Ecosystem Management

Grounded in the legacies of Wisconsin environmental luminaries Increase Lapham, Sigurd Olson, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson, the Badger State has a long history of public participation in the conservation of the state’s natural resources. In 2004, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources embarked on an ambitious project to create a network of programs, projects, and people with the goal of improving the breadth and effectiveness of natural resources monitoring efforts in the state. The result was the Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network. The state provides staff, financial and technical resources, coordination, communication, and recognition for the more than 150 members of the network. In addition to providing a greater than 3:1 return on state investment and the ability to collect natural resources data over larger spatial and temporal scales than could be accomplished by state staff alone, supporting citizen-based monitoring engages, involves, and informs thousands of students and citizens every year in Wisconsin, helping to establish and maintain a more ecologically literate, supportive public. Monitoring priorities are established by various state conservation plans that utilize the principles of ecosystem management to integrate social and ecological factors. In this session we will examine the social and ecological benefits and limitations of a state supported citizen-based monitoring network and lessons learned from the first eight years.

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Dennis Martinez,

Chair, Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network (IPRN) of the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SERI)

PLENARY 3.3 – Community Well-Being, Ecocultural Restoration, and Ecosystem-Based Adaptation to Climate Disruption: Toward Understanding Socio-Ecological Resilience in 12 Indigenous Communities in Pacific North America

Indigenous peoples possess a long record of environmental adaptation—withstanding decades-long droughts, ice-ages, gigantic floods. But today’s climate disruption is outside the experience of all of us, especially in its unpredictability in any given locale. Since Indigenous peoples live in some of the most vulnerable ecosystems on earth, adaptation is critical. As a steering committee member of IPCCA for Pacific North America, I visited 12 communities in nw US and sw Canada in 2010-2011 in order to assist with adaptation through the use of their own traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), with Western science utilized as a complementary quantitative methodology to the more qualitative TEK. Indigenous thinking recognizes no distinction between the social and ecological realms. Community wellbeing is intimately linked to the environment. Ecological degradation will be addressed by ecocultural restoration and social resilience enhanced by ecosystem-based adaptation. I will be sharing some of the main points I made in my final report to funders and discuss 8 key indicators of community adaptive capacity, discussing which indicators may be the most useful in predicting community resilience to climate destabilization. Just as “citizen scientists” can supply hard to find local data useful in predicting potential ecological tipping points before irreversible thresholds are crossed, so local Indigenous communities possessing extensive intergenerational memory and a strong cultural sensitivity to environmental change can assist in similar ways. As climate disruption continues to affect ecosystems and cultures/societies at multiple spatial and temporal scales, observational data on sites that are not easily manipulated experimentally are becoming critically important. Even potentially more important for ecology, considerable evidence suggests that Indigenous peoples themselves comprise a keystone biotic component of many ecosystems.

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Wallace J. Nichols,

Founder/Co-Director, Ocean Revolution; Research Associate, Department of Herpetology, California Academy of Sciences

PLENARY 3.4 – Turtles All the Way Down: Grassroots Networks, Knowledge and Communication Leading Towards a Conservation Success Story

In 1990 things were very bad for sea turtles in northwestern Mexico. The president had decreed a permanent moratorium on their hunting, collecting, use or sale but the black market filled the void due to a lack of enforcement and popular support. Experts agreed that it was too late for Baja’s sea turtles. Our academic advisors and funders suggested we not bother trying. Twenty years later we are telling a much different story. Sea turtles represent a rare bright spot on the conservation landscape, thanks to the innovative and sometimes controversial approach of the Grupo Tortuguero Network. Turtle hunters and consumers have taken on the role of researchers and protectors in fifty communities spanning 3,000 miles of coastline. While threats remain, populations are now increasing, dozens of community-based organizations are leading the way, and the Grupo Tortuguero network is holding its fifteenth annual meeting. At the core of these successes are an understanding of open-source movement building, neuroconservation and the value of emotional diversity. The model, known as the Conservation Mosaic, has been exported around the world to Cuba, Indonesia, El Salvador, Japan and Chile through a series of exchanges and consultations. Declaring this a conservation success story would be premature, but populations and attitudes are moving in the right direction: up.

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New Frontiers for Connecting and Supporting PPSR

Andrea Wiggins

Postdoctoral Fellow, DataONE, University of New Mexico and Cornell University

PLENARY 4.1 – With Great Data Comes Great Responsibility: Data Management for PPSR

Irreplaceable data are lost every day. In the 1980s, NASA, NOAA, and NSF spent a half million dollars to rescue 20 years of satellite data on climate change. Are your data in harm’s way? The good news is that proper data management is becoming cheaper and easier every day. Preventing a data disaster and preparing data to reach their full potential is no longer a task for librarians alone; in this new age of data-intensive science, it has become a fundamental research skill for all scientific endeavors.

Most participatory science projects are swimming in data that bring exciting new opportunities for scientific discovery and evidence-based decision-making. These data hold great promise that can only be realized through ethical, conscientious, and future-thinking data management. Data management is more than just databases and backups; it involves data quality, policies, sharing, integration, and stewardship.

PPSR data have enormous potential to advance human knowledge, and just like us, they can achieve more together. This talk outlines a vision for the future of PPSR data and the steps that will take us – and our data – further than we have dared imagine.

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Greg Newman

Research Scientist, Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University

PLENARY 4.2 – Redefining Participation: An Enterprise Approach to Expediting New PPSR Projects While Supporting Existing Needs

Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) projects address a wide array of scientific questions, create opportunities for more continuous and widespread data collection, fill data gaps, educate participants, inform management decisions, operate at multiple spatial and temporal scales, engage volunteers from all walks of life, and create volumes of scientific data. Most projects require significant up-front investment, collaboration, data management expertise, and information technology resources to get started. Data management systems flexible enough to support the formation of new PPSR projects are rare, difficult to develop, poorly defined, and lack the ability for anyone, anywhere to create new projects themselves. We developed a flexible enterprise-level system ( to expedite the creation of new projects, encourage cross-project synergy where applicable, and support project data management and visualization needs. use has generated and supported 41 projects contributing 7,000+ data records (species occurrences, site characteristics, species attributes, and treatments) covering 359 taxa distributed across 21 U.S. states. These initial results suggest that flexible cyber-infrastructure systems can be adept enough to support the needs of PPSR projects operating at multiple spatial and temporal scales covering many domains. We discuss the benefits and challenges of such an approach and suggest further features needed to better support the flexibility required by existing projects and potential new ones.

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Arfon Smith

Director of Citizen Science, Adler Planetarium, and Zooniverse Technical Lead

PLENARY 4.3 – Standing Out in the Crowd

With the emergence of new technologies the overheads associated with creating a new citizen science experience today is low. This has resulted in an explosion of new citizen science projects all vying for the attention of their volunteers. In this session I will offer some thoughts and strageties for developing a project with a strong identity and a motivated community and present some lessons learned by the Zooniverse project teams.

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Muki (Mordechai) Haklay

Professor of Geographic Information Science, University College London

PLENARY 4.4 – Taking PPSR to its logical conclusion: Extreme Citizen Science

How far can public participation in scientific research (PPSR) go? To answer this question we need to consider who the public is, what the level of participation is, and what we mean by scientific research. On all these fronts, it can be argued that current citizen science is only beginning to explore what is possible, and there is significant untapped potential for increasing the level of engagement of participants in research. By and large, citizen science is carried out by affluent and highly educated participants, who live in a Western country. The participants are usually involved in data collection and basic analysis. Spatially, the coverage follows the places where the type of participants go – popular hiking routes or their homes and neighbourhoods. Examples that divert from this mainstream do exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

However, PPSR can reach out to everyone, from non-literate hunter-gatherers in the Congo-basin to highly educated Western professionals; if this is achievable, it will be possible to cover any place on Earth where humans are found. Participants should also be able to formulate research questions, find suitable data collection tools, analyse outcomes and use the results of the study. These are the three dimensions at the core of Extreme Citizen Science, which suggests that we can enable any community, regardless of its literacy, to start a bottom-up citizen science activity, collect the data, analyse the results and act on the outcomes. In the talk, I will demonstrate that aspects of this vision are already in place as well as those that require further research and development.

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