What is Citizen Science?

Two adults and two kids gather around a net

NPS/S. Muether

Citizen science is science for everyone!

Specifically, citizen science is when the public voluntarily helps conduct scientific research. Citizen scientists may design experiments, collect data, analyze results, and solve problems. In national parks, most citizen scientists collect data with tools provided by project directors. These data help professional scientists and resource managers answer scientific questions and solve important problems. And the activity helps participants build meaningful connections to science.

Anyone can be a citizen scientist, regardless of where they’re from. It doesn't matter how old you are or what your background is. All it takes is some time, curiosity, and a sense of wonder.

two people use a spotting scope in an alpine lake setting


Why Does the National Park Service Support Citizen Science?

For two reasons -- good management of parks, and good experiences for visitors.

To manage national parks, the National Park Service (NPS) uses the best available scientific information. Sometimes the best way to get that information is through citizen science projects. For example, managers might need to know when certain kinds of plants bloom during the spring. Data on flower timing can help them know which butterflies need special protection, or when to mow a field. They might not have enough time to count all those flowers across the park. But hundreds of visitors hiking in the park can use a mobile app to record when and where flowers bloom.

Citizen science is also a great way for visitors to enjoy and learn about science and their parks. In a recent law, Congress affirmed that the NPS has a public education role and responsibility. Citizen science helps the NPS fill that role. One of the best ways to learn science is to do science. And by doing science, people can appreciate their parks in new ways.

Why Use the Term “Citizen Science?”

There is healthy debate worldwide about what to call public involvement in scientific research. Some people prefer the term “community science” out of concern that “citizen science” implies that only legal citizens of a country can participate. You may wonder why this site uses the term “citizen science.” There are several reasons.

For starters, the law that authorizes federal agencies like the NPS to support public involvement in research uses the term “citizen science.” Furthermore, the term is widely used around the world, including in the titles of scientific journals and the names of scientific societies. Most people and organizations in this field – including the NPS – intend “citizen” to mean a general citizen of the world, not a legally-defined citizen of a country. When someone mentions “citizen science,” there tends to be an immediate understanding of what they’re talking about.

But perhaps most importantly, community science is one particular type of citizen science – one in which a community drives the project. In community science, a community may pose the research question, decide what type of data to collect, or use the results to inform some action. There is typically a professional scientist or scientific organization that collaborates with the community but does not control the research project.

For most projects in national parks, the NPS or a partner (like a university) controls the project. It’s the professional scientists and managers who decide what topic is important (like flowering times), how to study it, and how to use the results. The public - which may range from park visitors to student groups or local community members - is invited, encouraged, and enabled to participate. They typically do so by collecting data. That type of project is not driven by a community, so it’s not community science.

There are some community science projects that involve parks and NPS programs, and there will be more in the future. This site specifically refers to them as community science but uses the broader term citizen science to refer to the wide range of volunteer-based scientific activities that the NPS supports.

Terminology aside, the underlying fact is that science is for everyone, no matter if you know a lot about science or a little, have participated in science before, or not. The NPS is dedicated to making science inclusive to all and ensuring that every person has the right and the opportunity to participate in scientific research. National parks, which are open to everyone, are great places to realize that opportunity.

Amid the grand vistas of a national park sometimes it's nice to stop, focus on a small patch of ground, and count the flowers.

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Plants, animals, environment, history, culture, oh my!  Coast to coast, there's a project out there for you.

Find Your Citizen Science Project!
black and white silhouette of a child picking something out of the ocean


Last updated: April 30, 2024