‘No Ph.D. Needed’: How Regular Citizens Can Help Prevent Biodiversity Loss

Earthwise AwareClaire O'Neill, founder of Earthwise Aware. Photo courtesy of Earthwise Aware.

Only about 12 percent of Americans are literate in ecological issues, according to Claire O’Neill, founder of Somerville-based Earthwise Aware. The environmental advocacy organization’s goal is not to throw money at big beautification projects or to find a miracle solution for climate change and habitat loss, but to make gradual change through learning.

“There is a big gap in terms of the knowledge of ecology in the world, for sure, in modern society,” says O’Neill, who has been involved in ecological science for the past 20 years.

This begs the question: How can an organization fill this gap of knowledge? For Earthwise Aware, the answer starts with engaging community members through the concept of citizen science. Citizen science is much more involved than regular science, where researchers study the public, O’Neill explains—in Earthwise Aware’s model, the citizens are the ones conducting the research themselves.

“It’s not about using you,” she says. “It’s about sharing skills, and in the process, everybody’s going to learn.”

Earthwise Aware will tell people how to get involved in its biggest initiative through the free event series called “No Ph.D. Needed: Saving the Planet with Citizen Science.” Sessions will be held at Arts at the Armory on April 4 and the Somerville Public Library on April 6, in addition to locations in Cambridge, Belmont, and Medford. The primary purpose of the talks is to equip locals with the tools needed to begin documenting and learning about the environment around them, and to encourage participation in the City Nature Challenge (CNC).

Started in 2016 in conjunction with the first celebration of Citizen Science Day, the CNC is a nine-day event in which people all around the world compete to document the most wildlife in their respective cities. The CNC now includes thousands of municipalities.

The first part of the challenge is a three-day period starting April 26 when anyone can take pictures of wildlife (“It can be any plant, animal, fungi, slime mold, or any other evidence of life,” according to the CNC website) and upload the photos and locations to the app iNaturalist. Then, from April 30 to May 5, scientists and other qualified researchers will identify what the public found. The goal of the CNC is to increase the public’s ecological knowledge, while also helping practicing scientists learn more about the state of international biodiversity loss. In this way, everyday citizens serve as field researchers in this worldwide project.

The need to learn about the environment is currently at an all-time high, O’Neill says—since 1970, there has been a decline of roughly 60 percent of vertebrate animals, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

“The reason for that is habitat destruction, habitat degradation, overpopulation, of course,” O’Neill says. “We are taking over land at a rate far more than the land has a capacity for.”

This dynamic is why it’s important to learn about what wildlife does remain and how we as a population can best preserve it.

“We need a lot of information,” O’Neill says. “Things are changing rapidly, and we need to understand the mismatch between, let’s say, when flowers blossom or when the leaves unfurl, and when the insects come to create food for the birds, etc. Everything is tied. It’s really about the relationships among the different organisms. That’s why there’s no need for a Ph.D. to do citizen science. Every citizen can start documenting with a little bit of monitoring, but not that much, and start assembling important information that can help.”

This is possible even in urban areas like Somerville, which is only about a 15-minute drive away from the 2,575-acre-spanning Middlesex Fells Reservation.

“In Somerville, it’s a little bit of a tough crowd,” O’Neill says regarding public interest in environmental literacy. “We’ve been doing programs in green spaces, parks, and reservations like Middlesex Fells Reservation. We want to raise the motivation of the people and raise the level of awareness of the people so that they might join citizen science efforts, which are a fun outreach effort.”

Anyone who is eager to make a change can start by downloading the iNaturalist app or a similar platform and begin taking photos of the wildlife that they pass by every day.

“Start taking pictures of plants—even the white flowers or weeds. Try to document that. Invasive [species] are one of the major threats of biodiversity loss in the city,” O’Neill says. “You can also document pollinators. There have been insect declines of 75 percent worldwide. There is a huge need for gaining data about the pollinators around us. Taking pictures of butterflies, of the plants where the butterflies land, that’s something that can be done right away.”

The biggest hurdle in the race against biodiversity loss is apathy, according to O’Neill, who calls it a “weak excuse.”

“Apathy is an easy way to say ‘I don’t want to do anything,’” she says. “There is always something we can do. We’ve seen that when we have the will to do something, there is an impact.”

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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About the Author

Lilly Milman
Lilly Milman is the managing editor at Scout Magazines. She started as an intern while attending Emerson College in downtown Boston, where she received a B.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing.