Friday, June 27, 2014

'Citizen science' hits 50-year mark

The Biological Records Centre, which supports more than 80 wildlife recording societies and schemes, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Its data, submitted by volunteers, is used by scientists, such as monitoring the spread of invasive species.

It has also helped researchers gain insight into ecological concerns, such as the demise of pollinating insects.

To mark the centre's half-century, biologists have gathered for a special event at the University of Bath.

'The Biological Records Centre [BRC] has been supporting, in many different ways, volunteers making records of nature and wildlife in Britain over the past half-century,' said Michael Pocock, an ecologist based at the BRC.

'There are a whole load of recording schemes and societies, each of which are run by volunteer experts who will in turn inspire, equip and encourage people to go out and record a particular group that they are interested in.

'In a sense, it is the BRC's role to make that process as efficient and successful as possible.'

Growing knowledge

Although the BRC was established in 1964, and now forms part of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a number of the recording schemes have been going much longer.

The earliest plant record in Britain dates back to the 16th Century.

The idea of having a central body to co-ordinate and share the data from wildlife recording schemes dates back to the turn of the 20th Century but successive efforts were derailed by the outbreak of world wars.

The information provided by the 85 schemes to the BRC has provided an unprecedented insight into the UK's flora and fauna.

'Societies and schemes share their data with us, and we are able to collate it and store it,' said Dr Pocock.

An estimated 96 million observations are available via the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Gateway website.

'One of our main uses is to apply expertise we have, such as in terms of statistics or analysis, to answer some of the cutting-edge questions.

'For example, we wouldn't really have a good idea of how pollinators are doing without the enthusiasm-led recording of these different groups over the course of many decades.'

Early warnings

Another advantage of having a centralised system is that it provides a vital resource for scientists monitoring the spread of invasive non-native species (Inns).

The UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2005, identified Inns as one of the main threats to biodiversity, along with the likes of climate change, habitat loss and the overexploitation of natural resources.

Invasive species are estimated to cost the UK economy about £1.7bn each year, and the BRC records have identified 1,991 species on these shores.

Recently, the BRC co-ordinated an expert group of volunteer recorders in an 'horizon-scanning review' to predict which Inns were likely to arrive here in the near future and have an impact on native biodiversity.

Another of the BRC's roles is to develop 'innovative use of technology' to help harness the enthusiasm and knowledge of naturalists, turning observers of nature into recorders of nature. Over the past 12 months, it has been involved in the release of six smartphone apps.

'Technology has really supported the development of citizen science projects. It has made it much easier to establish projects, collect data and to provide feedback to people involved in the schemes,' Dr Pocock said.

Now, he added, the process was much quicker and the emergence of websites, blogs and social media meant contributors could remain more closely involved.

Dr Pocock recalled: 'I took part in projects when I was young that involved cutting coupons out of a magazine, filling it in and posting it off. Then, maybe, six or 12 months later there might have been a little write-up in the same magazine about what the results were.'

'Media coverage'

However, behind the modern facade, the process and function of biological recording remained the same.

'I have been involved in a project called conker tree science,' he said.

'This was monitoring the movement and distribution of the horse chestnut leaf miner. We had lots of media coverage, and I thought it was all very new and exciting until someone pointed out to me that there was a project 20 years ago that looked at the distribution of the firethorn leaf miner. It also had coverage in national and regional newspapers, appeared on the BBC's Tomorrow's World and Ceefax.

'So the emergence of things like websites and smartphone apps help but the concept of volunteers getting involved is absolutely not new.

'I think the emergence of 'citizen science' has been good to break down the idea that only people in white lab coats do science, but - certainly within the biological recording world - it hasn't changed the ways that we do it.'