Want to learn more about citizen science in national parks, plan and implement your own project, learn about other projects, access key resources, and connect with a broad community both inside and outside the NPS?
This page provides information about what citizen science is, why it’s relevant to the NPS mission, where it’s happening, how to do it, who’s involved, and where to get help.
The NPS service-wide Citizen Science Steering Committee created this page. We welcome your feedback and suggestions about material to include. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is Citizen Science?
The term means different things to different people. Here are a couple of simple definitions:
- Congress defines it as “a form of open collaboration in which individuals or organizations participate voluntarily in the scientific process.”
- The Citizen Science Association defines it as “the involvement of the public in scientific research.”
Note these definitions do not mention legal citizenship status. Citizen science is for everyone!
In the NPS, citizen science:
- Can be used for any study that relies on data collection and analysis to draw conclusions, regardless of the subject matter. For example wildlife abundance, visitor behavior, and archaeological records can all be studied through citizen science.
- Contributes new information that goes through quality-control processes, is stored in available databases, and informs resource conservation or visitor enjoyment consistent with the NPS mission.
- Is subject to the same policies and procedures that apply to studies conducted by professional scientists (e.g. permits, data management, peer review and administrative review, etc.).
- Complements and integrates with the traditional knowledge held by Native Americans and indigenous and traditionally associated people.
- Engages members of the public as unpaid volunteers.
For more in-depth exploration of citizen science in the National Park Service, please read Citizen Science in the National Park Service.
Examples in National Parks
Citizen science projects are conducted in parks and programs across the nation. To read about a few, visit the NPS’s public Citizen Science subject site.
Saguaro National Park recently collaborated with Adventure Scientists to conduct a decennial census of saguaro plants in wilderness and hard-to-reach areas. Read about their experiences with the collaboration.
If you would like to contribute a case study of your own project, please email us.
Guidance and Best Practices
There are many toolkits, manuals, how-to guides, and other resources available online. We recommend the following.
- The Federal government’s citizen science toolkit provides advice and a leg up on planning, designing, and implementing projects in the NPS and other federal agencies.
- Citizen Science: A Best Practices Manual and How It Can Be Applied [PDF] describes a few case studies from national parks.
- US Forest Service Citizen Science Toolkit contains a wealth of ideas about how to design and conduct projects.
- Cornell University’s Citizen Science Toolkit takes a step-by-step approach to project planning and implementation.
Several organizations have created turnkey solutions for citizen science projects that can be implemented anywhere. They may involve open databases (with privacy controls as needed), mobile apps, data collection protocols, volunteer recruitment and training materials, analysis tools, educational materials, etc. Some are specific to one type of study, while others are generic and can be used by project leaders for any type of citizen science project.
Platforms for Specific Projects
- Phenology monitoring with Nature’s Notebook from the National Phenology Network (Parks that use Nature’s Notebook)
- Phenology monitoring with Budburst from the Chicago Botanical Garden (Parks that use Budburst)
- Species identification and mapping with iNaturalist from the CA Academy of Sciences (Parks that use iNaturalist)
- Mammal camera trapping with eMammal from the Smithsonian Institution
- Bird identification with eBird from Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Frog and toad monitoring with FrogWatch from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums
- Environmental monitoring with PicturePost from the University of New Hampshire (Parks that use PicturePost)
- Monitoring mercury pollution in national parks with the Dragonfly Mercury Project
Data and Design Tools for Any Project
- FieldScope allows you to collect, map, analyze, explore, and share data.
- Survey123 allows you to create forms, collect data on any device, map them and store them in a GIS.
- Citsci.org provides tools for creating and managing projects, including data collection and analysis tools.
- Hands On the Land provides tools and databases for K-12 educators to create new projects or join existing ones.
Citizen Science Communities Beyond NPS
Citizen science happens all around the world. Here are some ways to reach a community that extends well beyond the NPS.
- Federal agency citizen science coordinators
- Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Community of Practice
- Citizen Science Association
- Citizen Science Association listserv
What is the role of NPS staff in managing citizen science projects with partners and the public?
NPS staff hold a primary responsibility and final say over the scope and mechanics of citizen science projects conducted in parks (consistent with the issuance of research permits). NPS staff may work with scientists from other sectors, teachers, and the public to design and carry out projects, but it is inappropriate for these parties to dictate the project or override NPS resource management decisions.
I recruit public volunteers to remove weeds, clean up beach trash, or fix trails. Is that citizen science?
Maybe. If your volunteers provide new information by identifying the plant/trash, recording its location on a map, counting, etc. before removing it, then this activity is an example of citizen science. If they assist with stewardship activities without providing new information that goes into a database, then they are not doing citizen science.
I have interns who receive pay or an educational stipend. Do they count as citizen scientists?
No. According to the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act, citizen scientists are unpaid volunteers.
Our park has a lesson plan that teaches hands-on science. Is that citizen science?
No, unless those activities yield new data that go into a database.
Our park is hosting a BioBlitz or a CultureBlitz. Is that citizen science?
Yes, if the activity is explicitly focused on creating new knowledge (an accounting of resources in the park, like species or artifacts), it involves some experts like scientists or NPS staff, it uses scientific methods, and the results are stored in an accessible database.
What is the relationship between citizen science and traditional knowledge?
They’re complementary. In many parks, traditional knowledge held by indigenous peoples greatly informs resource management. That knowledge can be just as valuable to the park as knowledge derived through science. In supporting and promoting citizen science, the NPS does not claim that science is the only path to knowledge about parks.
What are the rules surrounding citizen science, the Paperwork Reduction Act, and collection of information?
If a park is planning a citizen science project that will request 10 or more people from the general public to submit information to the park then the project must abide by the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). If participants are enrolled as Volunteers in Parks (VIP), however, then the project is not subject to the PRA. This is a short answer to a rather complicated question and process. If you are in the process of preparing a citizen science project, please email us about PRA issues.
When does citizen science trigger IRB review?
IRB (Institutional Review Board) review is required when research is conducted on living people. The goal of IRB review is to ensure research activities cause no harm to people and are done with their consent. Projects involving oral history or biometric data, for example, may trigger IRB review. For more information on NPS policies and procedures, contact the NPS Cultural Anthropology Program or the NPS Social Science Branch.