It was 2007. My research group had just received an NSF grant to begin incorporating citizen science into our national invasive species program. Although we knew that involving the public was necessary to get the data we needed for our research, we had no idea how to begin. We had not even heard of “citizen science” prior to writing our grant but saw the term in a literature review and thought it was appropriate for what we were trying to accomplish. “What were we trying to accomplish?”, you might ask. Well, we had spent the past seven years compiling datasets from professional invasive species researchers. We hoped to get a better idea of the current distribution of these species and use modeling techniques to predict their future spread. We quickly realized that utilizing only professional datasets would not be enough (not even close!) to getting the data necessary to answer our research questions. We needed help…the kind of help that only a team of volunteers could provide. So, we threw together our ideas, we got the grant, we had the money, now what?
In 2007, although not that long ago, researchers new to the field of citizen science (or, more broadly, public participation in scientific research) did not have resources readily available to initiate a new program. Through online searches, I found some resources scattered here and there, but pulling these resources together took a lot of time. One of my primary go-to resources, published in 2006, was Broadening Participation in Biological Monitoring: Handbook for Scientists and Managers. One of the report’s authors, Heidi Ballard, was giving a workshop at the Ecological Society of America that year in San Jose. In addition, I also saw that Rebecca Jordan, a professor at Rutgers University, was giving a talk on an invasive species citizen science program. I spoke to both individuals while there (although I doubt they remember ) and I got enough feedback to get me started. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to contact Jennifer Shirk at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who was working on developing a citizen science toolkit. The toolkit was being designed for professionals like me with no idea how to get started, and a workshop was being hosted by Cornell later that year to get feedback on its development. One problem: the toolkit would not be available until after I needed it. So, back to the process of web searches, literature reviews, emails, hitting up presentations scattered across multiple conferences, and phone chats. It worked, but again, it was a time consuming process – a very time consuming process.
Fast forward to today. At the Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference held in Portland, OR, I found the one-stop-shopping venue I had only dreamed of back in 2007. The authors of all those relevant papers I had read were there. The programs that I had heard about were all represented. The colleagues that had mentored me over the past five years were there. Individuals I’ve always wanted to hear speak gave talks. If you are an up and coming researcher in this field, I would analogize this event to conducting literature reviews using the internet versus conducting those same reviews with multiple trips to the library, digging through filing cards labeled with the Dewey Decimal System. The evolution of the field and the networks that have established in the past five years have been remarkable to see. And, the discussion of the development of a professional society during the workshop suggests that these efforts will continue to evolve well into the future. So now, I sit here thinking……where was that Delorean when I needed it?