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'Citizen scientists' watch for signs of climate change

People with no formal training are helping scientists track and record birds, fish, stars, and plants in their neighborhoods online.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2008

Field Notes: Second-graders in Tucson, Ariz., record early spring blooms for BudBurst, a 'citizen scientist' project tracking climate change.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

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Kite-flying Benjamin Franklin was one. So was President Thomas Jefferson, who did important work in archaeology at an Indian burial ground. British chemist Michael Faraday, who had only a grammar school education but discovered the principles of electromagnetism, is a prime example. So is Jack Horner, the world-renowned discoverer of dinosaur behavior and adviser to "Jurassic Park," who never finished college.

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All of them are among amateur or "citizen" scientists who made important contributions to their fields without advanced degrees or university appointments.

Science educators today are eager to show people of all ages that they, too, can do the work of scientists. Whether it's counting birds, fish, or stars, or checking in on the lives of frogs or butterflies, ordinary Americans are joining in the excitement and rewards of scientific research.

Can people without formal training really do valuable work? "I believe they can," says Sandra Henderson, national coordinator for Project BudBurst (www.budburst.org).

This spring, Project BudBurst is inviting anyone across the United States to observe and report when trees, shrubs, flowers, or other plants growing near them bud or put out leaves.

"These observations can be very valuable to scientists," says Dr. Henderson, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "[Professional] scientists can't be everywhere, and we're asking volunteers to be these extra eyes on the landscape."

Whether BudBurst volunteers know it or not, they're engaged in phenology, the science of measuring the cyclic events of nature. Over several years, the project will build a database that will, among other things, help professional scientists study how global warming is affecting plant life around the country.

In BudBurst's first full year, thousands of people have signed up, Henderson says. They range from retirees to fifth-grade classrooms, 4-H groups to gardening clubs.

The granddaddy of such citizen science projects is probably the NestWatch program (watch.birds.cornell.edu/nest) sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. Since 1965, bird watchers have sent in some 300,000 nest-record cards, noting nest sites, species observed, surrounding habitat, and the number of eggs, young, and fledglings. They could provide a powerful record of the effects of global climate change on nesting birds, but 235,000 cards are still awaiting entry into the online database.