Monday, 12 September 2011

Citizen science - engaging the public with scientific research

Helen Weddle is the OPAL Education Officer at Newcastle University, based at Moorbank Botanic Garden in Newcastle. Not that many people know we have a Botanic Garden in Newcastle City Centre – She can be contacted at:

Engaging members of the public with science has always been a great interest of mine, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work in this field for some time. When the opportunity to work for Newcastle University under the OPAL project came along, it fitted very well into this interest. The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) network is a national 5 year Big Lottery Fund project, running from 2007 to 2012 and is part of a resurgence of unconnected projects designed to engage members of the public with scientific research. These ‘citizen scientists’ are engaged with projects in a number of ways; collecting data, analysing information and digitising historical records for example. 200 years ago, almost all scientists were citizen scientists, and made their living from another profession – Benjamin Franklin was a printer, diplomat and a politician and Charles Darwin was an unpaid companion on board HMS Beagle. Being a paid scientist is a relatively new phenomenon, proving the shift in the opinion that science was a valuable subject to society, and thus, scientists should be paid accordingly so they can focus on their work.

Projects like OPAL are part of this resurgence, and the core part of our project relies on the engagement of members of the public to gather data on our behalf. It’s main priorities are twofold though; whilst the data itself is extremely valuable, and will be used in the State of the Environment report at the conclusion of the project, we also aim to engage people with science and have them explore and learn about their local natural environment. Both are equally important. Most members of the public have been engaged by completing one or more of our six environmental surveys; Soil & Earthworm, Air, Water, Biodiversity in Hedgerows, Climate and Bugs Count. These have been released every six months throughout the project, and have been designed to allow members of the public, with little science knowledge, and no specialised equipment, to carry out an environmental survey at their choice of location. Participants have joined in either via events that have been organised by OPAL partners, or by receiving one our free survey packs and completing the survey themselves. These can be sent out to people, or they are free to download from our website: Our most recent survey, Bugs Count, has involved participants completing 15 minute bug count races to find as many invertebrates in a habitat as possible. You are encouraged to complete the survey in three different habitats, but we are aware that people may not have access to all three. Included in the pack are a workbook with full instructions and to record species found, an easy guide to identifying invertebrates, a pencil and a magnifying glass. Since its launch in June 2011, people taking part in this survey have recorded nearly 500 000 invertebrates! We are still looking for people to take part in all of the OPAL surveys as it offers us the chance to see how the environment changes throughout the year.

Being part of the OPAL project is very satisfying. On many occasions, we have worked with groups of adults who haven’t given much thought to their local environment before and I have found it very enjoyable to see how engaged they become with surveying hedges, looking for invertebrates and working on their identification skills. Similarly, working with children in school or community groups clearly shows how much young people love being outside and learning about nature, whilst also being engaged with ‘real science’. One of my favourite examples of this was when we worked with Tanfield School’s Science Club, and my colleague Chloe Booth shot this video found here.

As a result of the work put in by the OPAL partners across England, we have been nominated for a National Lottery Award for the Best Environment Project. We were very pleased to be nominated for this award, and even more thrilled to learn that the public voted our project through to the finals. We’re now back to public voting, and would very much like to win this award. You can vote online here. It will take you less than 20 seconds, and you don’t need to register. Or you can call on 0844 836 9694. Calls will cost 5p from a BT landline. Voting closes at midday on the 26th September, so please vote before then. We appreciate every vote!

The resurgence of citizen science projects is beneficial to all parties; for the scientists, it’s a way for them to collect more data than they could on their own, whilst also engaging the public with their science. So many science funding bodies impose the requirement of public engagement on grant holders as a form of public accountability, that actually using members of the public to carry out the research is the highest form of engagement. It allows the participants to fully understand the science that the tax they pay contributes to, whilst allowing them to gain new skills in species identification, data collection or another area of science.

There are many opportunities to engage with a citizen science project and many require no previous knowledge – which will you choose to engage with?


  1. Hi Helen,

    Thank you for an interesting post. As you say there are lots of citizen science projects out there. I strongly recommend that people try getting involved with more than one of these things, and then figuring out what suits them best in terms of logistics and their own interests. I particularly like projects like OPAL, as they encourage us all to think more about the natural world around us, and we can continue to do this at any time and in any place. I've already registered my vote for you!

    Best wishes,

  2. Congratulations on your nomination. I've voted too.

    This is the sort of project work that kids really love doing at school, but then as we get older, most us lose track of this kind of fun which is rather sad.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I totally agree with you Linda - we get lots of school groups who love being involved in our surveys, but less older people. We had a group of Autistic adults in last week surveying our pond, and they all said they'd had a wonderful time and didn't realise just how much you could find alive in a city centre pond. One lad even said to me that he hadn't pond dipped since he was in primary school and had forgotten how much fun it was. It's a shame that so many adults seem to think that pond dipping, invertebrate hunting and cloud watching are all things that only children, and those with children, should be involved in.

  4. Oooh! Pond dipping... I haven't done that for years myself! Maybe I'll have a go this weekend...

    Meanwhile, there is a great citizen science story in the news this week: Computer Gamers have helped to solve a problem in AIDS research that has puzzled scientists for years.

    A good basic version of the story is available at:

    For those who would like more detail, I recommend:

    And for more on applications of "crowdsourcing techniques", from gamers themselves:

    Happy reading...

  5. I expect you're familiar with the fiction and non-fiction of Barbara Kingsolver but I just thought I'd mention that it was a novel of hers, PRODIGAL SUMMER that took me back to my pond-dipping days and reminded me how fascinating insects are. She makes moths seem really exciting!

  6. Alas, Barbara Kingsolver is a new author to me, but on your recommendation, I am now half way through Prodigal Summer. It's wonderful to read a book that has such a strong strand of nature running through it, and such strong connections between the characters and the local environment. I am enjoying it immensely and thank you for introducing me to a new author! I wish I could get Barbara to write some of the marketing for OPAL!