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Session: Citizen Science, Outreach and Education
Session Chair: Karen James
• What does your proposed session cover? Why is it important to barcoding?
I’m moderating a session on citizen science, outreach and education. These topics are of central importance to two of the most compelling aspirations of the DNA barcoding community: overcoming the taxonomic impediment and engendering public appreciation of biodiversity.
Overcoming the taxonomic impediment
Through habitat destruction, invasive species, over-exploitation, climate change and overpopulation, the human species is in the process of inducing the sixth great mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. Because of a shortage of trained taxonomists, however, we haven’t even completed a one-off inventory of life on Earth (1.8 million multicellular organisms are known to science; this is probably just 1-10% of the actual number), much less the regular monitoring of changes in that inventory needed to assess and predict how organisms respond to change. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has called this knowledge gap ‘the taxonomic impediment‘ and affirms that “the inability [of non-taxonomists] to identify, or obtain identifications of, species is a major component of the taxonomic impediment”.
To overcome the taxonomic impediment and create a responsive worldwide monitoring system for biodiversity, the CBD endorses a strategy of empowering non-taxonomists to identify organisms. This will require at least two components: 1) effective, evidence-based, transferable approaches for recruiting and equipping these non-taxonomists to function as relatively autonomous ‘citizen scientists’ who can identify living organisms and readily share these IDs (plus location and other meta data) with the global scientific community and 2) accessible tools, such as easy-to-use identification guides and DNA-based identification devices to facilitate identifications and information transfer.
Thus by combining citizen science and DNA barcoding, we have the potential to play a significant role in overcoming the taxonomic impediment to inventory and monitor multicellular life in a rapidly changing environment.
Engendering public appreciation of biodiversity
A key justification for DNA barcoding is its potential to increase and improve public engagement with the natural world by “empowering many more people to call by name the species around them” (Barcode of Life: Ten Reasons). The mission of the DNA barcoding community is not only to assemble barcode reference libraries and develop technology and encourage global participation of taxonomists, but also to promote “the use of DNA barcoding for the benefit of science and society” (CBOL Mission Statement).
Citizen science, outreach and education initiatives that involve DNA barcoding are not only aiding in the development of approaches to engage non-taxonomists to overcome the taxonomic impediment, as discussed above, but are, at the same time, creating opportunities for students and members of the public to become meaningfully engaged with science and the natural environment.
• What is your vision for the 4th Conference?
In general I am hopeful that the 4th conference will indicate a continuation along the growth trajectory established by the first three. I’m looking forward to the talks from researchers from around the world working in a variety of taxa and contexts and making exciting progress over the last two years in building DNA barcode reference libraries to enable future (and in some cases present) identification of query sequences.
More specifically, for my session, I hope to learn about both established and new projects that engage students and members of the public in DNA barcoding, whether through participation in the development of DNA barcode reference libraries or through the use of those libraries for an application of economic or social importance. I hope there will be some movement towards the systematic evaluation of both the contributions by and benefits to participants, and a discussion on how these data can be used to develop ‘best practice’ in engaging non-experts in DNA barcoding, including the development of a range of tools to support these projects.
And of course on a personal level I am looking forward to meeting and perhaps starting new collaborations with like-minded researchers, and to reuniting with friends and colleagues from around the world.
• What research do you do?
After seven years at the Natural History Museum in London, I have recently repatriated to the United States and started a fellowship at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Maine.
While at the Natural History Museum I worked on a range of molecular projects spanning the disciplines of systematics, evolution and developmental biology. Among these was the incorporation of DNA barcoding in a plant inventory of a meadow at Darwin’s historic home, Down House, the data from which was included in the Plant Working Group’s 2009 paper in PNAS recommending matK and rbcL as plant barcode loci. In 2009, in collaboration with the Cothill Educational Trust, I developed a new educational DNA barcoding project, Tree School, which I spoke about at the 2009 conference, which will just be coming to the end of its first of three years of funding in November.
At MDIBL, I am working closely with Acadia National Park to develop a new project that will engage park visitors in biodiversity inventories and monitoring, featuring a DNA barcoding component. With its remarkable concentration of scientific research and educational institutes, and 2.5 million visitors every year, I believe the Acadia region is well suited to become a focal point for research and implementation in combining citizen science with DNA-based biological identification.
I am also Director of Science for The HMS Beagle Trust, a UK charity raising funds and developing international relationships (with Chile, in particular) to rebuild HMS Beagle and retrace Darwin’s voyage doing science and public engagement. I hope that this project will provide a compelling platform for biodiversity research including DNA barcoding. Through this project I am collaborating with NASA on a science, education and public relations project related to human exploration and Earth observation.
• If people are interested in this topic, what can they do to get involved in addition to submitting an abstract?
Obviously, I hope they will attend and perhaps submit an abstract to the citizen science, outreach and education session at the conference in Adelaide. They can also get involved via the Education, Outreach and Citizen Science Group on Connect.BarcodeOfLife.net. I also encourage the DNA barcoding community to consider involving students and other citizen scientists in their projects as not only end users of DNA barcode reference libraries, but also as participants in their assembly.