Citizen science: what are the benefits and how to get involved
Learn about the benefits to wellbeing of taking part in citizen science and how you can get involved and help nature using handy apps.
The positive impact for wildlife and nature is also clear, with the public recording sightings of everything from butterflies and bees to frogs and toads, wildlife charities have access to a wealth of data they can use to map, track and better understand how to protect our wildlife and natural environments.
Find out how you can take part in a citizen science project and the benefits to your wellbeing.
What is citizen science?
Citizen science generally involves groups of people or amateur scientists helping gather data for use in nature or wildlife studies to support conservation.
So whether you give your time online, sign up for a practical project with a wildlife or nature charity close to home, or combine volunteering with the chance to travel and experience wildlife overseas, your generosity and kindness will not only help nature, it’ll do you the world of good too.
Why take part in citizen science?
Giving is good for us. We know this instinctively. When we give we feel good. We experience what scientists describe as the ‘warm glow effect’ or ‘helper’s high’, now known to be caused by a release of endorphins (one of our three ‘happy’ hormones alongside serotonin and dopamine) in the brain.
Research into this effect by the US National Institutes of Health , discovered that giving to charities stimulates the areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust.
A second US study by Claremont Graduate University found that giving may also trigger the release of oxytocin, another hormone associated with feelings of warmth, euphoria and connection. Put simply, altruism is a proven path to good mental health.
What are the benefits of taking part in nature and wildlife conservation?
When our altruism is related to nature, and in particular when we give our time and effort, the rewards for our wellbeing are far-reaching.
Whether we’re working to maintain freshwater ponds at the weekend, on a volunteering holiday helping big cat conservation in Namibia, or contributing to a citizen science survey by monitoring wildlife in our back garden, our care and kindness has the power to boost our mood and strengthen our self-esteem, especially when we learn new skills and earn the added satisfaction of accomplishing new tasks.
There are benefits to our physical health too, including an improvement in our fitness, lower blood pressure, improved cardio-vascular health and better sleep.
The immersive and hands-on aspect of taking part in nature and wildlife conservation projects has also been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and low mood. A three-year study [published in 2017] by the University of Essex, which monitored volunteers taking part in the UK Wildlife Trusts’ nature conservation projects, found that 95 percent of participants who reported low mental wellbeing at the start of volunteering, recorded an improvement in their mental health after six weeks, which increased further after 12 weeks.
“The research revealed how volunteering with meaningful, nature and craft-focussed activities may be beneficial to both the general public and individuals with defined needs,” concluded lead researcher Dr Mike Rogerson, writing on The Wildlife Trusts’ website.
Alan Murray, head of volunteering at the RSPB agrees: “We have more than 12,000 fantastic volunteers and between them they contribute almost one million hours every year. We believe our volunteers keep coming back because of nature’s power to restore, uplift and inspire and we’re confident that the more time people spend connecting with wildlife the more they feel moved to protect it.”
Be part of a group
Volunteering as part of a group is also an opportunity to meet like-minded people who share our values. The Campaign for Loneliness reports that a fifth of the UK population say they are “often or always lonely”, volunteering is a way to reach out and make human connections, as well as connecting to the natural world. Research published in the journal Psychology Today shows that strong social connections reduce anxiety and depression, boost our immune system and may even lengthen our life.
Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, has participated in several volunteering programs, learning about invasive species, planting trees and building trails. “It’s a fun way to get outside, meet people in a shared endeavour, and feel like you are making a difference,” she says, “and research has linked all of these things to increased wellbeing.”
This is true of being a member of a smaller group and feeling part of a wider community, such as the online communities created by citizen science projects like the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch.
The wellbeing benefits of becoming a citizen scientist shouldn’t be underestimated. Not all of us have the access to nature and wildlife that we might like, but these online hubs give us the opportunity to volunteer our time and make a personal contribution wherever we are. Help From Home is a directory of ‘microvolunteering’ opportunities, which can take from as little as a few seconds to a few minutes to complete. ‘Green’ actions range from insect, bird and flower counts to recording the different types of trees in your garden.
Citizen science projects that need your help
Zooniverse App, free (iOS/Android)
Select a discipline (science, nature, medicine and more), then choose from a range of online research projects, including orangutan nest watch, specimen mapping and tagging penguins. zooniverse.org
iRecord App, free (iOS/Android)
Contribute to conservation and scientific research by photographing and recording nature and wildlife as part of a project to record all of the UK’s species. There are some iRecord apps for specific groups, providing more detailed information about the species and how to identify them, including butterflies, grasshoppers and crickets, and ladybirds. apps.apple.com/gb/app/irecord-app
iNaturalist App, free (iOS/Android)
Photograph plants, wildlife and other living organisms then upload your observations and add them to a global database of biodiversity supporting research projects at a local and global level. apps.apple.com/gb/app/inaturalist
Dragon Finder App, free (iOS/Android)
Identify and report sightings of reptiles and amphibians across the UK to assist wildlife charity Froglife using their free app. froglife.org/dragonfinder/app
Giving Nature a Home App, free (iOS/Android)
The RSPB app encourages users to create a wildlife haven on their doorstep – whether that’s a garden, balcony or window ledge. Enter your preferences and the app will suggest tailored activities to suit your space, spare time and the season – then learn about the nature you are helping. apps.apple.com/gb/app/giving-nature-a-home
eBird, free (iOS/Android)
Report real-time bird sightings and observations and contribute to a global online checklist created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with projects in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia and Europe. ebird.org
Big Butterfly Count App, free (iOS/Android)
Take part in the UK’s annual butterfly census in July and August, aimed at assessing the health of our environment and assisting in butterfly conservation. apps.apple.com/gb/app/big-butterfly-count
Main image: Students pond dipping at Epping Forest Education centre. © Photofusion/Universal Images Group/Getty