A critical review of “The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: Participant Outcomes of a Citizen-Science Ecological Research Project”

A little background

This study invited members of the public to be involved in ecological research (focusing on avian biology) in their own backyards to improve their scientific knowledge and their sense of place.

My thoughts on this

Biodiversity today faces numerous human-induced threats such as habitat loss and degradation, the introduction of invasive alien species, over-exploitation of resources, pollution, and anthropogenic climate change. It appears that while the challenges themselves seem to be escalating, the wherewithal required to tackle them is still lacking. Given the assumption that a strong individual sense of connection with nature is what motivates conscientious environmental behaviour, it follows that the current ecological crisis stems from an increasing estrangement of people around the world from nature.

Moreover, the majority of people today live in cities where life-sustaining ecosystem services are hidden. Thus, unaware of their dependence on nature, people view it as expendable. Thus, this human-nature disconnect, which has significant implications for the support of conservation efforts, is a cause for concern.

In light of this, I find the intentions behind this study very admirable as it seeks to address some of the problems above, by getting citizens to be concerned about nature in their own backyard. After all, one of the biggest threats to biodiversity is people not knowing what is out there.

Some of my comments about this paper are as below:

  1. For face-to-face interviews, studies have shown that interviewees tend to answer according to the expectations of the interviewer. How did this study account for this “surveyor effect”? This may be significant given that many stated that they liked the association with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and thus, may have answered in a way that would have made them appear better, affecting the results of the study.
  2. Was this study preaching to a case of the converted? Based on the reasons why participants chose to be involved in the programme (Figure 1), it appears that many were predisposed towards conservation. This self-selection bias may also have somehow influenced the results. Ultimately, as it is the “unconverted” that conservation biologists need to reach out to, I wonder how the results have varied if such people had participated.
  3. It appears that there were no pre-surveys done prior to the start of the programme. Moreover, control groups (i.e., participants who completed all the surveys/interviews without taking part in the programme) were also not used in this research. The use of such surveys and control groups would have been important to determine if the trends in the knowledge set of those who participated in the programme were actually due to the programme itself.
  4. Another factor that may have to be taken into consideration are the skills of the scientists/interns in communicating the methodology of the study. It is likely that such skills would have improved over time in the same individual. This may in turn, have confounded the results too. Alternatively, were standard templates used in the provision of answers?
  5. I am also rather curious about the drop-out rate from the programme over time as this may also provide some information about aspects of the programme that can be improved on. Such information is not presented in the main text.

Despite this, based on the results, it appears that such citizen science programmes can be used as starting points from which to reconnect urban dwellers who either do not have the resources or inclination to travel to non-urban areas where education relating to wildlife has historically been based. Given the assumption that the ability of urban dwellers to maintain a connection with nature is the basis for their understanding of the need for conservation near and far, programmes like this, which aim to bridge the gap between scientists and laymen, are excellent as they could engender greater support for conservation efforts locally. If done right, they could also promote environmentally conscientious behaviour in the very areas that exert a great pressure on biodiversity through their material flow and consumption patterns. Such causal effects could go a long way in reversing the current patterns of environmental degradation and in paving the way for a sustainable environmental future.

Reference

Evans, Celia, Eleanor Abrams, Robert Reitsma, Karin Roux, Laura Salmonsen, and Peter P. Marra. “The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: Participant Outcomes of a Citizen-Science Ecological Research Project.” Conservation Biology 19, no. 3 (2005): 589-94. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2005.00s01.x.

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