What is citizen science?

Lisa Baddock
Jul 23, 2023

You might have seen the term “citizen science” popping up more and more lately, but what in the world is it?

The National Geographic Society defines citizen science as;

The practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge.

National Geographic explains that:

Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.

Even before we throw in the travel element, the concept of citizen science sounds pretty great. It means that ordinary people like you and I can contribute to global scientific knowledge without any hard-core qualifications. After all, scientific research is the essential first step towards solving some of the world’s biggest issues, from plastic pollution to climate change or the extinction of animal species. And when it comes to research, the more data you can collect, the better. Unfortunately, collecting such large amounts of data can be an incredibly expensive task and in many cases, projects simply cannot get off the ground because of this cost. This is why “citizen scientists” are such a valuable part of the process.

What does citizen science look like in practice?

Scientific institutions will often seek collaboration from “citizens” by reaching out to community organisations, schools or universities who can help capture data about a given topic on a voluntary basis. For example, scientists might engage a local wildlife group to keep a record of endangered animal sightings by their members. This data could be used to gauge whether the population is in a state of decline or whether a new conservation project is having a positive impact.

Why are citizens willing to lend a hand?

There are a lot of people out there who are passionate about spending time in nature as well as protecting it for the future. Many citizen science projects resonate with these values because they often play a role in larger conservation efforts like the example mentioned above. Citizen science is a great way for people to get their hands dirty and make a real, physical contribution towards a cause that they are passionate about. People do not simply leave these values and passions behind when they travel. In fact, it can be quite the opposite.

What does it have to do with travel? How is citizen science GOOD Travel?

When it comes to travel, an increasing number of people are looking for off-the-beaten-track experiences where they can learn something new, engage deeply and maybe even connect with a greater purpose. This growing trend is no secret and there are now some great companies providing positive experiences to this travel niche (that’s why you’re here!). GOOD Travellers are also mindful of their travel footprint and are driven by a desire to leave a positive impact on the destinations they visit. Citizen science is a great way for travellers to achieve all of these aspirations whilst contributing something of real value to a destination - especially the ecosystems and national parks that they visit.

Why is citizen science travel taking off?

I believe that citizen science is taking off in the travel space because there is a natural alignment of values and outcomes for everyone involved. Many natural areas require active monitoring, rehabilitation and conservation in order to protect wildlife for the future, especially in areas which have suffered from illegal mining, natural disasters, overhunting and more. Conservation projects are often underfunded so volunteers are highly valued. All the while, the number of travellers seeking authentic experiences and a way to give back is growing. On top of that, the act of working together with local people and other travellers for a common goal is a great way to forge genuine connections that go beyond the transactional encounters that often occur in tourism. These scenarios create an opportunity for both locals and travellers to learn from each other, resulting in a two-way cultural exchange. With so many great benefits for everyone involved, more and more travel companies are now incorporating citizen science elements into their travel experience.

What are the benefits for travellers?

While there are substantial benefits for the environment, host communities and scientific organisations, there are also a lot of secondary benefits for you as a participant and traveller. Firstly, these projects can be absolutely fascinating! Whether you are naming new animal species in the Amazon or testing for microplastics in eastern Indonesia, these kinds of experiences are unique, fun and completely unforgettable. Secondly, you’re highly likely to find yourself surrounded by people who share similar passions and interests. I know it’s overstated but it’s because it’s true - the people you meet while travelling can often have a bigger impact on the overall travel experience than the places you visit. Lastly, there’s no denying that it feels GOOD to give back when you travel.

What are some GOOD examples of citizen science travel?

SeaTrek Sailing Adventures operate two traditional pinisi boats throughout the remote and wildlife-rich islands of eastern Indonesia. Operating in some of the most pristine aquatic environments in the world, the socially and environmentally minded adventure company is passionate about protecting our oceans from the global plastic crisis. They recently launched a new citizen science initiative in collaboration with Indigo V Expeditions, where guests can help to collect, test and eliminate microplastics as they sail. Guests can participate in all parts of the process. From setting up the machine (which pumps and filters 50 litres of seawater at a time) to analysing the particles picked up by the filter under a special microscope, and sending images off to Indigo V’s headquarters for further examination. The project sparks curiosity and hearty discussions onboard and SeaTrek has committed to testing for microplastics on every departure going forward. How GOOD is that?  

Refugio Amazonas is an engaging eco-lodge situated in the heart of the lower Peruvian Amazon and run by local ecotourism company, Rainforest Expeditions. With a long history of scientific research and conservation under their belt, it was only fitting that the ecotourism company would construct an eco-lodge dedicated to discovery through citizen science. Here, guests mingle with resident scientists, participate in their WIRED AMAZON projects and even discover new species. All new species identified by guests become part of the International Barcode of Life project, which aims to construct a global DNA barcode library. You even get to name any new species you find!

Food for thought: Citizen science trips can be a great alternative if you are a philanthropic traveller wanting to spend part of your overseas trip “giving back”. While you should still ask questions to a citizen science trip organiser to ensure that the trip aligns with your values, many citizen science trips do a great job of providing a more ethical voluntourism experience.

Have you taken a holiday that involved citizen science before?

Let us know about your experience in the comments below.

July 23, 2023
5 min read