BIOSCAN and Citizen Science

BIOSCAN and Citizen Science

Citizen science is increasingly recognised in many countries as a valuable model for increasing our knowledge of the natural world. Platforms such as iNaturalist attract hundreds of thousands of amateur and professional naturalists to contribute observations of organisms from all taxonomic groups and regions.

There is also growing public awareness of threats and adverse trends affecting biodiversity and the environment. This is illustrated by the attention paid internationally by the media and general public to recent papers reporting declines in insect abundance.

BIOSCAN is likely to capture the imagination of many enthusiastic amateurs, offering scope for them to become involved in different ways in DNA-based sampling and monitoring activities.

This topic is for general discussion of the opportunities and challenges related to engaging citizen scientists as partners in BIOSCAN. If appropriate, subtopics will be broken out into separate threads for more focused discussion. This opening post will be maintained as an introduction and overview of discussion topics.

Discuss citizen science linkages with BIOSCAN below.

Possible issues around public perception

Although most amateur naturalists and interested members of the public understand the need for accurate data to inform understanding of biodiversity, many of these individuals are likely to have negative perceptions related to research that collects and kills organisms. BIOSCAN needs to develop clear communication materials that explain the purpose, value and need for such sampling, particularly for taxonomic groups for which lack of knowledge and lack of taxonomic expertise limit our ability to identify specimens. The efficiency of barcoding approaches and the prospect of growing future reliance on eDNA are important factors in such communication.

Supporting learning and education

Some amateurs with deep interest in particular groups or in the ecology of their local habitats are likely to be enthusiastic potential adopters of barcoding technology. Involvement by such individuals may be primarily limited by cost. If BIOSCAN programs in their country have funding for sampling activities such as malaise trapping, these amateurs may be very effective local workers able to operate traps and send materials for processing.

However, there is a risk that many other potential contributors will find limited interest in BIOSCAN protocols if these simply involve servicing traps and sending material away for processing. It would be valuable for BIOSCAN to consider how protocols can be tailored to allow local groups to interact more deeply with the samples, for example by assuming a parataxonomic role in coarse sorting of specimens or by developing a deeper expertise for identifying specimens in particular groups. The challenge will be to accommodate such opportunities without complicating the sequencing and bioinformatics processes and without risking loss of materials or degrading samples.

Challenges around standardisation

As discussed in the Design of Field Collections topic, the value of BIOSCAN data is likely to be increased if protocols for sampling are standardised and include deliver good metadata and associated information. This goal may conflict with the need to offer citizen science groups cheap and easily replicable protocols. Nevertheless, effort should be made to ensure that citizen science activities deliver samples and data that are as close to the optimal protocol as possible.

Funding issues

Citizen science may be a very effective model for collecting samples from a wide geographic range and a broad spectrum of habitats. However, at current per-sample and per-specimen costs, it is unlikely that many local groups will undertake to fund the processing of these samples. Funding will therefore be required from other sources, but the involvement of citizen scientists in a project may itself be considered a positive aspect by some funding bodies.

Avoiding bias towards lower biodiversity sites

Since BIOSCAN aims to build the barcode reference library as much as possible and to sample diverse ecosystems, and since funding is limited for supporting unnecessary redundant efforts, it will be important to encourage citizen science groups to plan their involvement as part of a bigger picture, contributing perspectives and knowledge that is not being contributed or cannot be contributed by others. Protected areas and nature reserves sited close to major population centres may be the optimal locations for citizen-led BIOSCAN efforts.