Karen Telleen-Lawton: Citizen Science | Homes & Lifestyle – Noozhawk

By Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk Columnist | December 2, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.

I would have loved to be a scientist, but I feared I wouldn’t be able to find the sweet spot in how to spend my workday. I love the outdoors too much to spend days in a windowless lab, and I’m too wimpy to spend weeks on end camping in a rainy jungle, broiling desert, or roiling sea.

Nevertheless, I admire the fact-finding, inquiry-based methodology of science, and seek it in my daily life. Fortunately, it’s a great era for those of us who have scientist-envy. The era of citizen science is here.

Citizen science is basically scientific work undertaken by non-scientists, often in collaboration with scientific institutions. For many projects, we can be helpful even if our only skill is counting. Our green presence alleviates some of the common bottlenecks of good scientific research. That is, our numbers can increase a project’s geographic scope, lengthen its timeframe, and broaden the number of species or taxa under study.

More eyes and more counters mean a larger data set and more accurate statistics.

This is particularly true for the upcoming Christmas Bird Count. For one specified 24-hour period between late December and early January, the Santa Barbara Audubon Society sponsors the local happening of the international Christmas Bird Count event.

This year, the 120th count, takes place all over Santa Barbara County on Saturday, Jan. 4. Santa Barbara nearly always spots more bird species than all but one or a couple locations in the nation. The 2019 count totaled 197 species.

Another count important for local citizen scientists is gray whale migration. The Gray Whales Count is scientific research as well as an education project. Two-hour observer shifts from mid-February through May keep watch for gray whales swimming to birthing ground in Baja. The look-out point is at Coal Oil Point Reserve, near the UCSB campus. Volunteers are always needed and training is supplied.

Whales, giant sea bass, and other marine life are counted and monitored by other regulars on the Channel including sea captains, Channel Islands Naturalist Corps volunteers, and recreational divers. This record-keeping isn’t just for fun. The data help scientists, divers and other stakeholders define sustainable fishing practices, recommend ocean tanker speeds, and make other important decisions.

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden encourages citizen scientists at all activity levels from one-time on-campus projects, to periodic data collection requiring specialized training to even leading projects off site. Their goal is to actively protect California’s flora and the diverse life that depends on it.

If you’ve ever made a remark like, “The sycamores seem to be losing their leaves earlier this year,” or “Look how many acorns the oak tree is producing this year,” you may be interested in phenology.

Phenology — the study of the timing of leaf production, flowering and reproduction — lends itself well to citizen scientists. It’s rewarding to tabulate from year to year, particularly if you have kids or grandkids with whom to share your enthusiasm. You can also improve scientific databases by adding your data to the state California Phenology Project database, and the National Phenology Network.

Citizen science’s recent popularity does not mean it is new. UCSB has incorporated citizen science at least since 1972. The Gentleman Scientist of yore predate recent efforts by centuries. These gentlemen — and likely many gentle women — were generally wealthy landowners who funded their own scientific investigations.

Both Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin would certainly be considered citizen scientists. Of today’s efforts to bring knowledge, passion and experience to support scientific understanding, Ben and Charles would be proud!

Other citizen science resources:






— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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