Citizen science is a growing practice in which volunteers, often hobbyists, students or other non-professionals, aid scientific research, usually by collecting data. It’s not a new thing, but it’s become an increasingly popular way to crowdsource data collection, in many cases involving environmental observations gathered by outdoors enthusiasts.
While it can be highly useful for researchers, citizen science can be just as impactful in terms of engaging the public in science and the environment, making the fields less exclusive and subjects anyone can connect with firsthand.
That kind of education and engagement form a big component of a $1 million grant announced last month to the National Park Foundation to establish citizen science programs at four national parks. The donation to the NPF, the philanthropic arm of the National Park Service, supports "Citizen Science 2.0 in National Parks" over the next three years.
The program divvies up funding across four parks around the country, partnering with nonprofits and schools to get students working alongside researchers in real-world scientific study. Funding backs establishing the partnerships, creating citizen science curricula and providing professional development training to teachers. For one example, students in Southern California will collect environmental data at Cabrillo National Monument to study the impacts of urbanization and resource management.
The grant comes from the Veverka Family Foundation, a small funder created by president and CEO Mary Jo Veverka, who worked in consulting at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, as a partner at Accenture, and served a five-year stint as deputy commissioner of the FDA. One of Veverka’s big causes is environmental education and citizen science, and she served a six-year term on the board of the National Park Foundation. The foundation has given several donations to parks and environmental and educational causes in the past, but this one is much larger than previous gifts.
We’ve written recently about the potential educational benefit of outdoor experiences and why funding this area holds strong appeal for some philanthropists these days. Involving volunteers in scientific research also offers the potential to expand understanding of parks and biodiversity. The NPS has been a believer in the potential of citizen science for some time, now.
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But there’s another interesting way that this could benefit the NPS—by getting more people, educators and students alike, to appreciate the value of America’s national parks.
While national parks are generally adored by the public and provide huge economic value to surrounding communities, like all parks, they tend to get bumped to the margins in public funding decisions. The service’s $3 billion budget has not kept up with inflation, and the agency has a $12 billion maintenance backlog. The NPF has embarked on a fundraising campaign that’s now up to $420 million.
Educational programs like this citizen science initiative might help the park service demonstrate another level of value in order to justify its funding to some decision makers. And like all environmental education programs, there’s the hope that instilling in young people an understanding of the inherent value of conservation will pay dividends in the long run.
The NPS’s current budget woes can't be solved with $1 million, but maybe a resulting educational program can cultivate more Americans with deep connections to our parks and environment, ready to go to bat for them in the future.