Citizen Scientists are Great

I’ve been watching a lot of The Brain Scoop lately, which of course involves going through her archives, and at one point, a viewer asked her if she still thought there was a place for amateurs in science. Her response was an enthusiastic and delighted ‘YES!’ as she explained that, well, yes. Citizen scientists gather and contribute huge amounts of data to all kinds of research, like studies on birds, bugs, and other migratory beasties; research that scientists could never hope to conduct because it would be too expensive and time consuming to gather the data becomes feasible with the cooperation of a troupe of citizen scientists.

I happen to be a huge fan of citizen science, both because I love science and because I think it’s a fantastic way to get people engaged with science and the natural environment. Many people think of science of an elite, ivory tower sort of thing that doesn’t involve them, and citizen science brings it to their level, shows them how they can be directly involved, and encourages them to think about the ways in which scientific issues actually do affect them.

Take, for example, drift catchers.

In agricultural reasons of the United States, it’s extremely common for large commercial farms to use aircraft to apply pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. I have a vivid memory of staying with a friend in Napa once and being warned not to go out into the vineyard too early in the morning because that was when the planes were out, and I didn’t want to get doused in chemicals. Agricultural aircraft do a brisk business zooming back and forth over fields of all manner of crops, covering them in all sorts of things.

Along the way, they significantly endanger workers and passerby, many of whom are not adequately protected. People living near fields that get sprayed may be told there’s no danger, or warned away specifically during spraying but not advised about lingering particulates, drift, and other issues. Wildlife, of course, have no way of comprehending the dangers of being in a field that’s being sprayed, and many of these chemicals can cause severe illness; pets, too, are endangered. Cats, for example, are extremely sensitive to permethrins, a class of insecticides sometimes used to control crop pests.

Agricultural spraying has a large number of intrinsic problems, in other words, but it’s also a problem because when you spray, it doesn’t just remain in stasis exactly where you sprayed. It drifts. There’s no way to control the drift (pilots can take logical steps like not spraying on extremely windy days, of course, but even in relatively still weather, drift happens), and consequently these chemicals can end up on neighbouring fields (including organic crops, which are supposed to be produced without the use of chemicals) as well as in homes, waterways, and natural areas.

Yet, it can be hard to prove that drift is happening, because it requires the sustained and potentially expensive use of air sensors. That means researchers need to go around installing and monitoring sensors, must obtain permission to use them, and may need to combat sabotage and other attempts to undermine their research efforts. Unless, of course, they turn to neighbouring landowners and residents and enlist them as citizen scientists, because they can do whatever they want (within reason) on their land, and that includes setting up an air sensor when they see a plane pass by. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with collecting samples, noting specifics about the circumstances of collection, and sending them in to a researcher who’s tracking pesticide drift.

Drift catching is now in practice in several states, with farmers all over the place sending in their data for analysis. They take air samples when they see aircraft spraying and for several days afterwards, allowing researchers to track the presence of toxins in the air not only during application, but also when these chemicals volatalise in response to heat, UV exposure, and rain or irrigation over the following days. The results can allow farmers to show their neighbours what they’re doing, and they also create more momentum for the drift-catching movement—and for the push to better regulate the use of agricultural aircraft, as it is painfully clear that sprayed applications don’t stay neatly within the boundaries of their fields.

For farmers, there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to fighting drift. While they can register their boundaries with authorities, pilots don’t always check, and if drift occurs, the crop is already damaged by the time farmers file a complaint about it. State officials may take days to respond to complaints, at which point chemicals may have dissipated, and a farmer can no longer prove that crop damage was caused by drift; which means that the farmer has no means of getting compensation from the parties responsible for the spraying. For organic farmers in particular, drift is a huge issue, because contaminated crops violate organic standards and can’t be marketed as organic; contaminated land may also need to be cleaned before a farm can retain organic certification. In addition, many organic crops are sensitive to industrial herbicides designed for use on ‘Roundup ready’ crops.

Now that sprayers are being watched, will they be less cavalier? We’re seeing a radical change in agriculture as farmers and industrial agricultural companies are finally coming to understand that weeds and pests will always be able to stay one step ahead of them, and thus that the solution to these problems may lie not in liberal applications of chemicals, but in more organic, natural practices that aim to outsmart the enemy, rather than trying to outrun it.