Science for All
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“Science literacy is an important part of what it is to be an informed citizen of society.”
— Neil DeGrasse Tyson
People love to study nature; to know about their natural environment, and to actively contribute towards the conservation of nature. Similarly, people love to study and explore the country’s history, culture, and archaeology. Observing their surroundings, keeping track of the changes of animals, climate, and harvest, exploring forests, studying about the past of our human ancestors, being inquisitive about religion and beliefs are natural instincts of humans.
During the colonial times, the colonial civil servants who were in Sri Lanka, driven by this natural instinct, explored the natural and cultural wonders of this little island. They studied our birds, mammals, plants, rituals, history, and ancient places. Most of them were not academically trained scholars or professions in those disciplines. Yet, their contribution towards the improvement of science and social sciences was immense.
However, as education become more formal and with the birth of schools and universities, research, exploring, and investigation were limited to an academically trained community. Gradually, an invisible wall was built between the general public and sciences. This invisible wall becomes one reason to make people insensitive towards their natural and cultural environments, making them feel distant from nature and culture.
People having inadequate knowledge about their surroundings is actually problematic. But now, things seem to be changing. People are more and more interested in learning, researching, and actively contributing to the conservation of their natural and cultural heritage. With the improvement of interactive media and easy access to digital platforms, people have become more and more engaged in such scientific studies and knowledge sharing.
The involvement and active participation of the public in scientific research are known as ‘citizen science’. To know more about this interesting branch of science we had a conversation with two scientists of Sri Lanka; environmentalist and lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardana and Professor in Forestry and Environment Science, of the Department of Forestry and Environment Science, University of Sri Jayawardenepura, Prof. Hiran Amarasekara.
What is Citizen Science?
Citizen science is a branch of science where people who have the passion and enthusiasm make detailed observations and come to inferences and conclusions and contribute to the scientific knowledge of the world, explained Dr. Gunawardana. He said that citizen science is not confined to natural sciences such as zoology, botany, and ecology but can be in other fields such as astronomy, climatology, geology, and even in different branches like electronics and chemistry.
Citizen science has been in existence for centuries and citizen scientists had made quite significant contributions to the scientific community but they had been identified as a separate class and named as such very recently.
Who is a citizen scientist?
“During earlier times citizen scientists in the field of environment and natural sciences were known as naturalists or nature scientists but the term scientists are of recent usage and I feel that they had been given their due recognition by naming them as a separate class of scientists as opposed to the professional scientists who are employed or paid to do their research by an institution”, explained Dr. Gunawardana.
“Therefore, to me, citizen scientists are a different class whose passion and enthusiasm makes a contribution to the scientific base of knowledge and we don’t expect any reward monetarily for their efforts.” There had been many scientists who were in other professions but were engaged in certain scientific work in addition to their day-to-day work and they were never employed by any authorities to do their scientific work.
Therefore, it is pertinent to call them citizen scientists. In natural science, a large number of the scientists who have significant contributions to zoology and botany, and ecology had been citizen scientists throughout the centuries. As Dr. Gunawardana said, a citizen scientist could be of any education level and any age level, and citizen scientists had been in different age categories.
What matters is the contribution that they make towards the body of scientific knowledge and not their training, education, age, and experience. It is their systematic documentation and observation of different things and their engagement in the chosen area of science that matters and their contribution is most often quite interesting, important, and in certain aspects vital towards the betterment of the society and for the betterment and enhancement of the knowledge.
“In Sri Lanka, the term citizen science and citizen scientist had been used quite recently and I have seen prof. Sarath Kotagama and the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka also using this term and we have been using this in our own groups such as the Young Zoologists Association (YZA) and different other nongovernmental organisations.”
Still, many people who are really citizen scientists are quite reluctant to call themselves scientists. “But I think we have to come forward and accept and acknowledge the contribution that we are making and accept and acknowledge ourselves as a distinct group of scientists and not as enthusiasts or amateurs or hobbyists as some people still prefer to name citizen scientists rather than giving them their due credit.”
Great citizen scientists of the colonial times
In Sri Lanka citizen science had been the vogue since colonial times. Most of the colonial era personalities who contributed towards the natural sciences such as zoology botany and ecology, and even geology had been citizen scientists. Of ornithology in Sri Lanka, the first person to compile the birdlife of Sri Lanka and contribute greatly to this subject was Vincent Legge who was a captain in the British Army.
The second person who had made a contribution was Mr. Wait who had been the director of museums. In addition, he had been interested in the different sciences of natural history. W.W.A. Philips was a planter and during World War I, he was a military officer; a Major.
He also contributed a large body of knowledge to the field of ornithology. G.M. Henry was an artist in the natural history museum of Colombo but whose work on ornithology is outstanding. Mrs. Lushington developed her own methods of identification of birds and had been an excellent bird illustrator of this country but she was a housewife and an enthusiastic person who has never been employed in another sector.
Citizen science projects people can do at home
When asked, Dr. Gunawardana said that people can observe the birds or the pollinating animals in their home gardens. They should keep track by recording all details and patterns of these animals. Citizen scientists of Sri Lanka have done remarkable discoveries Prof. Amarasekara explained to us that, citizen science has made science something that the whole society can contribute and actively participate in and that citizen science has become a global trend currently.
In many developed countries, citizens are empowered. Community leaders and children and organisations can contribute to science. “The research work at universities, ‘institutional research’ is being paid by the State. But today, there is a lot of young generation who are involved in research, not for money and they are especially engaged in research and explorations about natural sciences. These studies reveal a lot of new information.”
He further said that most of the newly discovered animals in Sri Lanka were observed and discovered by young citizen scientists. The diversity of herpetofauna in Sri Lanka is very dense and we have a large number of frogs and snakes; many of them were discovered by such young scientists. “We learned that we have a great density of endemic species due to the great contribution of these groups. These are citizen scientists.”
He also explained that when we make State-level decisions and policies, it is important that we need to do it based on research. Therefore, through the active participation of citizen scientists, we can collect important data for such work.
A few examples of citizen science projects people can do
When asked about a few examples, the professor said that students in relevant areas can study and observe the harvest patterns in order to understand how the newlyimported nano fertiliser works on crops. If people are observing the harvesting patterns then we have lots of accurate data from all over the country.
Also, it is great if the community can more actively engage in the work of collecting the plastic pallets on the beach which was a result of the X-press Pearl shipwreck. He also said that is it quite hazardous so have to be cautious. People can engage and actively react to environmental issues in the areas where they are living such as the humanelephant conflict (HEC).
Rural communities should have more practical solutions for this conflict and we need to bring them forward. He also said that there are so many citizen science apps available such as the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) app where, if a forest fire happens, people can report it through this app. This is a platform where the communities’ active response towards the environment could be put into action.
Training and a platform to publish their work
As prof. Amarasekara said that through school science programmes and science societies school children can be trained and taught about natural sciences and how to be citizen scientists. He said that if proper scientific methods are followed methodically, then the results are accurate and acceptable. Given the formal training to enthusiastic citizen scientists on more scientific methods, more accurate data could be collected.
“This year, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) conference has dedicated a session to citizen science,” said prof. Amarasekara. “In the future, we will dedicate more conferences to citizen science.” Prof. Amarasekara told us about the Australian priest, Gregor Mendel who did so much research.
But his research papers were not recognised when he was alive. However, after his death, his work was acknowledged and, even still study Mendel’s theories and highly acclaimed and valid. People being engaged in studying nature and contributing towards conservation has many benefits to the discipline, society, and to the person. People can grow as individuals as they become more knowledgeable about the natural environment; this eventually contributes to social development.
This makes them feel more connected and responsible towards nature; which is the greatest benefit we could ever have. “It's perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, and exponential population growth. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology.”
— Carl Sagan