Caterpillars, conkers and citizen science
“We are asking people to get involved in the research process... This is genuine hypothesis-led research but with a huge national team of research assistants.” - Dr Michael Pocock and Dr Darren Evans, NERC CEH and University of Hull
“We never set out to create a citizen science project on this scale,” explains Dr Michael Pocock an ecologist based at the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. “I believe that its popularity is down to the fact that we are asking people to get involved in the research process; they provide data and their own feedback and insights. This is genuine hypothesis-led research but with a huge national team of research assistants.”
Dr Pocock, formerly at the University of Bristol, and his colleague Dr Darren Evans, at the University of Hull, are responsible for a highly successful citizen science project, the Conker Tree Science Project, supported by the NERC. The project which is now entering its third year involves thousands of people around the country; has spawned its own smartphone app (the LeafWatch app), which reached number 1 on iTunes education downloads; and has generated masses of national and regional TV and radio coverage.
Such is their passion for their subject that Dr Pocock and Dr Evans were keen to find a way to convey to a wider public audience the central idea of their research: ‘nature relies on us and we rely on nature’. At the time, they were researching the networks of interactions between animals and plants on farmland, and how we depend on these interactions, for example the role of insects as pollinators or natural pest controllers .
“As I watched one of the research assistants in the lab check thousands of samples I realised that anyone could take part in this aspect of our research. You did not need to be a highly trained scientist to rear insects and see if they have been attacked (literally eaten alive from the inside out!) by insect pest controller. Anyone could do this research and, at the same time, witness first-hand the complex interdependencies of nature,” said Dr Pocock.
However, going from this ‘eureka’ moment to creating a national network of ‘citizen scientists’ has been an incremental process. It began in a shopping centre in Bristol funded by a small Research Councils UK National Science & Engineering Week Award and support from the University of Bristol’s public engagement office. Armed with boxes of freshly bottled leaves and a handful of enthusiastic PhD students they went out and asked people to look after the ‘alien insect in my pot’ and to report their findings six weeks later via the website. Fifteen percent of people filed their results.
“We learned a lot from that experience. We realised that all types of people can be engaged by taking part in science. Over the course of the weekend, we spoke to and shared stories with thousands of people, including families, senior professionals, groups of teenagers and people newly arrived in Britain. We also learned more about how to run an ecology experiment with members of the public helping out,” says Dr Pocock.
Dr Pocock and Dr Evans, now convinced that this form of public engagement could result in genuine scientific research, decided to approach local schools in an attempt to increase the number of results – which was essential for answering their scientific questions. They worked with local schools to recruit 900 children to take part in the project, which was now focused on horse chestnut trees and the ‘alien’ caterpillar moth that is spreading across the country and damaging the leaves of the trees. This proved successful and led to an application to the NERC for extra funding to launch the project nationally. They worked with a team of volunteers to link up with schools across the country and recruited 80 classes to take part. Many other people heard about the project through the media and gathered data too. In total over 3500 people got involved in the first year, and about 5000 were involved in the second year of the project.
He admits, though, that the runaway success of the Conker Tree Project has taken up a lot of time. “Don’t underestimate how much time running a project like this takes, even if you have lots of practical support. The key for us was that it was good for our research too,” says Dr Pocock. “Although some other academics were concerned that we should be focussing on ‘real’ research that really misses the point of what we were doing. We are not asking people to do something just for the sake of ‘public engagement’ – worthwhile though that is - but because we have a real scientific question we want to discover the answer to. By using members of the public we have gathered a greater volume of data and extended our geographical reach in a way that would not have been possible with a regular research team.”
Dr Pocock understands that it can be difficult to quantify the impact of his research. Discovering the way in which we rely on nature is of benefit to everyone and he sees public engagement as a pathway to having an impact beyond the readers of science journals.
“Some of my research impacts lead into policy decisions, but some cannot be directly taken up by policymakers. However, policy makers are sensitive to public opinion. By interacting directly with the public and using different methods to engage them I want people to experience for themselves the interdependency between our everyday lives and nature. I believe I am doing my bit to change opinion: achieving an impact by getting people to think about the natural world in which we live.”
Institution:NERC CEH and University of Hull