Some academics think amateurs undermine research, but they are the lifeblood of many a field study. Caroline Davis reports.
Enthusiastic amateurs have always played a central role in science, from the wildlife enthusiast with a bird table in the back garden to astronomers peering into the night sky with home telescopes. But the contribution that volunteer-collected data makes to science, either to its benefit or its detriment, has never really been assessed.
Critics say that using untrained amateurs undermines the validity of research because the data they collect cannot be relied on. But many branches of science, particularly those that involve long-term repetitive work, must rely on volunteers. For example, a project to monitor a wild mammal population may require setting traps and collecting samples, tasks that must be performed several times over the course of an 18-hour day over a five-day period, repeated over several months. A research scientist may be unable to afford the time. Some extra pairs of hands could be invaluable.
Decreasing government funding for ecological and conservation research coupled with a growing public enthusiasm, has meant that projects often rely on volunteers.
Earthwatch, a charity that places volunteers on scientific projects, is now in the middle of an 18-month study to evaluate the reliability of volunteers as data collectors, as compared with professional scientists. The Volunteer Data Validation Project aims to identify areas where volunteers can make valuable contributions. It will investigate how the educational, social and professional background of volunteers affects their performance, and assess the need for training.
The project is supported by ten United Kingdom conservation and ecology research institutions and the International Biodiversity Observation Year 2001-02 project.
"We are keen to address any prejudices that exist within the scientific community," says Pamela Mackney, chief scientific officer at Earthwatch. "By promoting the use of volunteers we can harness a largely untapped source of funding and support for scientific projects."
The survey will involve questionnaires to find out how researchers cross-check data gathered by volunteers; field trials to evaluate accuracy; and a literature review. The first results are due imminently.
David Macdonald is director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University and a member of the scheme's scientific volunteer validation committee. He uses volunteers to track mammal populations in Oxfordshire's Wytham Wood. They come from a range of backgrounds, from graduates looking to gain work experience to people on drug and crime rehabilitation programmes.
Professor Macdonald likens volunteers to a piece of equipment whose accuracy has to be taken into account when collating results. "We hope to get a better understanding of the present and potential role of volunteers while improving their fulfilment through taking part," he explains.
Volunteers are essential to the Biological Records Centre at the Natural Environment Research Council's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, according to its head, Paul Harding. "Our knowledge of the biodiversity of the UK and how it has changed and is changing is based almost entirely on the work of volunteers coordinated mainly by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) during the past 50 years."
Stewart Evans, of the Dove Marine Laboratory at Newcastle University, found that volunteers contributed more than assistance with data collection. A coastal study using volunteers from diverse backgrounds, from local diving groups to the Women's Institute, took the media's fancy. The coverage on local television, radio and newspapers increased the impact of the work.
Dr Evans says that volunteering not only gives people a sense of contributing something useful, but also enables local people to feel they are re-establishing responsibility for the environment in which they live.
- Earthwatch ( www.earthwatch.org ) is one of many charities that arrange working holidays, usually abroad, for members of the public to contribute to conservation projects. Projects normally last from two to 28 days and can cost as much as £2,000 to attend.
The scientific volunteer valuation committee is made up of representatives from the British Ecological Society, the Institute of Biology, the National Biodiversity Network, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Oxford Forestry Institute, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, the Natural History Museum, Newcastle University, the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and the World Conservation Union.
The amateurs prove an asset in coastline investigation
Stewart Evans believes there are two keys to success when using volunteers in field research - adequate training and realistic tasks.
Evans, a member of the scientific volunteer validation committee, was part of a team from the Dove Marine Laboratory at Newcastle University that used local volunteers to record marine flora and fauna on the east coast. In 1999, about 70 people took part in the Northumberland Coast Marine Biodiversity Project, which focused on 50 easily identifiable species and their occurrence over 238sq km of coastline.
The volunteers came from the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and were of all ages and from all backgrounds, from retired people to young families. All spent a day at the laboratory learning to identify the species. Volunteers were allocated a 1sq km patch in which to record the abundance of a limited number of species, visiting the area at low tide. They were then left to carry out the work for the first season, returning their records to the laboratory following visits.
As a control, two scientists - a marine biology graduate and a zoology graduate - made similar abundance assessments for eight of the species at some of the volunteer sites.
In six of the eight controls there was over 80 per cent agreement, enough to make the Dove team feel the project had been successful and that the data the volunteers collected were reliable.
The exercise did throw up some interesting differences between scientist and volunteer data. Volunteers tended to be more extreme in their classification of abundance, perhaps because they had less experience.
But when they reported seeing a particular starfish significantly more often than the scientists, the team had to rethink their model of the starfish's habits to reconcile the difference. And volunteers spotted a jellyfish that had not been seen in Northumberland since 1956.