NSF award to launch citizen science initiative across Pacific Rim

What if every coastal community along the entire Pacific Rim were involved in monitoring their local marine environment, and all of that data were brought together in one place? Imagine, for example, if residents in Long Beach, Washington, could submit information about seabirds they observe, then look up bird data from another coastal community in southeast Alaska to compare notes.

Think about the possibilities if new data were combined with traditional knowledge to bound climate impacts, or if local knowledge contributed to oceanography.

These are lofty goals, but a team of researchers led by the University of Washington believes creating a network of community-based science is possible with new support from the National Science Foundation.

The grant comes from the agency’s new INCLUDES program, which seeks to improve access to STEM education and careers by reaching more underserved populations, including the dozens of small, remote communities dotting the Oregon, Washington and Alaskan coastlines. The UW-led project is one of 37, totaling $14 million from the National Science Foundation.

“Almost everyone has a story about how the local outside environment that’s important to them is changing,” said Julia Parrish, lead investigator and associate dean for academic affairs in the UW’s College of the Environment. “We aim to create something that is community based and community driven and shakes hands with mainstream science that we call the Coastal Almanac.”

The almanac, Parrish explained, will be two things: A physical network of people living in coastal communities — along with researchers from universities, colleges and agencies — and a digital collection of data that are curated and shared online.

“We see a future where every single coastal community has hundreds of people involved in data collection and data use, helping to make the decisions about natural resources in their backyards,” Parrish said. “The Coastal Almanac is a way of extending the discovery space and the solution space of science to include more people and ideas.”

Parrish, a fisheries professor who founded and directs the 17-year-old citizen science group Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), worked with Marco Hatch at Western Washington University and Selina Heppell at Oregon State University to submit the Coastal Almanac proposal. The National Science Foundation money will support a two-year pilot phase, with the goal of further funding.

More than 600 proposals were submitted for the prestigious INCLUDES awards, which will support both tried-and-true methods of engagement, as well as “edgy” projects that could bring big rewards if they succeed, Parrish explained.

“Our project is big and risky,” she said. “Trying to flatten the science landscape to truly involve everyone is a tough challenge. But I think UW is exactly the right place to do this, because we are an incredible powerhouse of information and expertise. We have it within us to speak with, and work with, everyone.”

During the first two years, the team will launch a Coastal Almanac website and determine the most effective ways of posting and sharing information. Hatch and Heppell will reach out to tribal nations and fishery organizations, respectively, while Parrish will focus on citizen science groups.

The UW will likely host the almanac’s central administrative hub, but Parrish said most of the activity will happen in coastal communities, as residents collect data on subjects as varied as weather, beach erosion, marine mammal sightings, invasive species and flower timing.

“In today’s quickly changing world, science needs to be a team sport,” Parrish said. “If everybody could participate in meaningful science without having to be scientists — how might we make decisions differently, as communities, as a society?”

The INCLUDES grant comes on the heels of another National Science Foundation award to the UW — Active Societal Participation In Research and Education (ASPIRE) — that will support early career researchers in the geosciences who wish to work more collaboratively with rural and/or underrepresented communities on issues that geoscience can address.

In total, the UW and its collaborators are receiving $700,000 in funding to encourage community-driven science, especially among underrepresented groups.

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