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Mystery lovers were thrilled by a recent real-life whodunnit in which citizen scientists tracked down criminals responsible for manufacturing banned chemicals. Citizen scientists rarely catch criminals, but they often make meaningful contributions to professional scientific research. And anyone can become a citizen scientist.

A CFC Mystery

One of the biggest environmental success stories of the ‘80s was the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned CFCs, the chemicals responsible for ozone depletion. Then, after years of improvement, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Colorado discovered increasing CFC levels that pointed to new production somewhere in East Asia. If the new pollution continued, it could delay repair of the ozone layer for a decade or longer.

The New York Times and the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) took the case and discovered at least eight unregistered factories in China using the chemical CFC-11 in blown foam insulation. The international attention from these investigations will likely spur a crack-down on illegal factories in China.

Citizen Science

As technology becomes more ubiquitous and easier to buy and use, everyone can consider participating in pollution enforcement.

EIA’s investigation, which began with an analysis of NOAA data, is an example of citizen science. While few individuals have the resources to conduct an international criminal investigation, science is something that everyone can do. The four components of citizen science are:

  • Anyone can participate.
  • Participants use the same set of instructions (called a protocol).
  • Data can help professional scientists come to real conclusions.
  • A wide community of scientists and volunteers work together and share data with each other and the public.

How To Get Involved

A National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology report recommends integrating citizen science into the EPA’s work.

The EPA prepared an online Air Sensor Toolbox to help citizen scientists and others participating in air quality monitoring research; they may take more proactive measures once they have settled current leadership challenges.

The website Challenge.gov lists federal science competitions. In these problem-solving events, U.S. federal agencies invite the public to solve perplexing monitoring-centric problems. One current challenge asks for new ways to monitor air quality during wildfires to better protect public health. The winner could receive up to $60,000. Although it can be unwieldy, the Citizenscience.gov catalog includes citizen science efforts of all kinds.

Citizen science is not always government supported.

SciStarter is an online citizen science hub of more than 2,700 searchable research projects and events. Besides its project directory, SciStarter offers citizen scientists of all ages and skill levels access to the tools and instruments needed to participate in projects. It also coordinates data collection.

National Geographic offers a curated citizen science project directory. A collaboration of scientists, software developers, and educators, the Citizen Science Alliance catalogs their internet-based citizen science projects on Zooniverse. You can take part as a citizen scientist on a project.

If you’re a professional researcher who could use some citizen science help, you can use Zooniverse’s tool to build your own citizen science project and reach out to the community.

For a more personal project connection, check with local universities and educational organizations for opportunities. For example, the University of Washington partners with local residents on a variety of environmental research questions, and the Seattle Aquarium trains high school students to monitor intertidal species populations in Puget Sound.

Become a private eye for the planet. It’s fun and getting easier every year.

 Have you participated in a citizen science project?

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.