Global Earth Challenge

The Earth needs citizen scientists. Here’s how you can become one

Not all scientists wear lab coats. Citizen science brings together amateur scientists — students, educators, enthusiasts, community leaders — to gather data that supports research, informs policy and drives change.

Through citizen science, everyday individuals can participate in research by collecting otherwise unreported data and sharing information on a scale previously unimaginable. The data collected is not only relevant to local issues; when coordinated and managed well, citizen science can also be used on a global scale to tackle problems like climate change.

What’s more, you might be a budding citizen scientist without even knowing it: Citizen science takes many forms, including collecting rocks, watching birds and testing water samples. Citizen science gives everyone, regardless of background, the ability to use scientific research to improve the community and inform decisionmakers in the private and public sector to make better choices for our planet’s future.

But how does this all work? Why is citizen science important and how can you participate in it? Let’s start by diving into a centuries-old history.

A brief history of citizen science

In our digitally connected world, citizen science seems like a recent phenomenon — anyone can share ideas with a click of a button. But citizen science spans back years.

Astronomy, for example, has a long history of achievements by citizen scientists. Take William Hershel, musician by day, who discovered Uranus, and Thomas Bopp, a construction parts manager who spotted one of the century’s most celebrated comets, the Hale-Bopp. Their findings opened a whole solar system to discover.

On our own planet, citizen science has helped jumpstart several industries, including photography: Anna Atkins, a 19th-century botanist, produced images of plants and algae on light-sensitive paper in her book “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.” Some consider the book the first to ever use photographs as illustrations.

One of the most popular reoccurring forms of citizen science is the National Audubon Society’s yearly bird count. More than 2,000 groups and tens of thousands of people across the United States and Canada collect information on birds, which scientists and researchers use to better understand bird conservation.

Citizen science today

Today, the internet and smartphones greatly increase the accessibility of citizen science. Both scientists and amateurs can collect and share data in real time to be observed, commented on and discussed by a larger community.

As the saying goes, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The world needs citizen scientists to accelerate research and track some of our planet’s most pressing environmental issues. With data pouring in from all angles, citizen science creates a system of accountability and action to drive meaningful change.

April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To continue building on the world’s largest environmental movement, we need citizen scientists engaged and empowered. That’s why Earth Day Network recently partnered with the Wilson Center and the U.S. Department of State to launch the world’s largest coordinated citizen science campaign, Earth Challenge 2020.

The initiative challenges millions of global citizens to collect more than a billion data points in the areas of air quality, water quality, insect population, climate change, food sustainability and plastic pollution. Sign up to learn more about citizen science and help make our planet healthier and more sustainable.