(I photographed this monarch in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's live butterfly exhibit.)
I was particularly struck in Halpern's account with the role of the amateur, the citizen scientist, interacting directly with the butterfly and with scientists studying it. In the early 1950s, when the destination and fate of the millions of monarchs seen traveling through the fall skies from the northern reaches of the U.S. and Canada were still a profound mystery, zoology professor Fred Urquhart at the University of Toronto and his wife Norah recruited volunteers in an effort to tag monarch butterflies and track their journey. Some 3,000 volunteers responded and the Urquhart network generated data until the early 1990s. I recently saw the IMAX 3D movie Flight of the Butterflies which tells of the search for the monarchs’ overwintering site; it presents the Urquharts as the unblemished heroes of the tale. As Halpern suggests, this is not the only way to tell the story. Regardless, the Urquhart network produced a wealth of useful data. And the effort continues. For instance, Monarch Watch, a great resource supporting the monarch, has reported the recovery of over 16,000 of its tags between 1992 and 2011.
The growing field of public participation in scientific research (PPSR) includes citizen science, volunteer monitoring, and other forms of organized research in which members of the public engage in the process of scientific investigations: asking questions, collecting data, and/or interpreting results.Press coverage has been enthusiastic with Hillary Rosner’s piece in Scientific American (Data on Wings, February 2013) just a very recent example. At this end of this post, I take Rosner to task for certain claims in her article, but first a bit of history and context.
Citizen science, citizen scientists. The growing interest in these activities arises, in part, because they can be greatly facilitated by computer technology linking the efforts of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals at work on data numbering in the millions. Yet, lest one conclude that all current citizen science projects are technology driven and tether volunteers to their computers, there are many, like butterfly tagging, that draw participants outside where they run the risk of getting their hands dirty. The Citizen Science Central website offers links to a broad array of projects that run the gamut.