Can laypeople really be of help to serious research & conservation projects?

Yes, absolutely - if the project is set up properly! Much of biological data collection consists of simple tasks and with a little training anyone can help to collect much needed information. Hard data form the core of all scientific arguments, but someone has to collect the information and this is often labour-intensive and, within a well-designed research project, can therefore be perfect for lay involvement.

Example 1: The study site of our Namibian project is very large. The local scientists have many animal traps for capturing lions, cheetahs, leopards and hyaenas for radio-collaring, but on their own would not have the time to drive through the vast study site and check each trap every day, so most traps are idle and fewer animals are captured when Biosphere Expeditions is not around. When the expedition is on-site, however, all the traps can be checked every day, more animals are captured and radio-collared, resulting in more data. Needless to say that you do not need to be a fully-fledged scientist to drive through the study site, check the traps, and radio in when a lion, cheetah, leopard or hyaena is captured!

Example 2: A child can distinguish between a blue-and-yellow macaw and a scarlet macaw, because one is predominantly blue and yellow and the other red! Armed with this information, laypeople are ready to gather data from an Amazonian macaw clay lick (a place by the river where birds congregate to eat clay, probably for detoxification). For example, they may gather important data such as how many blue-and-yellow and scarlet macaws come to the clay lick over a certain period of time, what the behaviour of each species is (by ticking off a simple list of behaviours such as eating, socialising, resting etc), or how they react to being disturbed, say, by a passing boat. Over time these data will help scientists determine parameters such as population trends and human impact on wildlife, but someone - and this someone is you – needs to commit their time and sit in a hide to collect the data in the first place.

Example 3: A bear track is unmistakeable - even with no training you would probably know when you see one! A lone local scientist can only cover a small area each day, but a whole expedition team can survey a very large area and thereby provide the scientist with a much better picture of bear movements and numbers. And if for some reason (for example an unclear print on a hard substrate or a small juvenile print) you are not sure whether you are looking at a bear track, you simply take a picture with the digital camera we provide you with and ask the scientist at the end of the day. If it was a bear track, it will be entered into the datasheet; if it wasn't, the scientist will tell you (and the rest of the team) what you have found, helping everyone to build up their tracking knowledge.

Don’t worry if the experience you are interested in is not mentioned in the examples above. There simply would be too many examples to cover them all and all our experiences are set up so that laypeople can make a real contribution. The “typical day” section of each description will give you a good idea of what you will be doing.
And if the examples above from within Biosphere Expeditions have not convinced you yet, then there’s more, independent, evidence. Going back as far as the 1960s, a great deal of literature has been produced highlighting the value of data collected by laypeople and the ideas, enthusiasm and hard work that they bring to the conservation world.

A 1999 study by Dr. Judy Foster-Smith and Dr. Stewart Evans of the University of Newcastle (J. Foster-Smith and S.M. Evans. ‘The Value of Marine Ecological Data Collected by Volunteers.’ Biological Conservation Vol. 113, 2003, p119-213) investigated the use of laypeople to collect marine data in Cumbrae, Scotland. In this study the authors say that “much of this type of research is labour intensive but technically straight-forward and volunteers could make significant contributions to it in the future”. And it gets even better: “(data) generated from them (i.e. volunteers) were almost identical to those produced…… by an experienced scientist.”!

A similar study in Oxfordshire’s Wytham woods by Dr. Chris Newman and Dr. Christina Buesching, from Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (Dr. C. Newman and Dr. C. Buesching. ‘Mammal monitoring at Wytham Woods: Conservation Volunteers can make a difference!’ Times Higher Education Supplement, December 2002) yielded much the same conclusions: “…the study has found that people from all walks of life, with all levels of previous involvement with field ecology, from novice to expert, have something to offer to conservation… The results collected by the amateur naturalist teams proved very reliable when compared to more complex monitoring techniques used by professional researchers at Wytham.”

The Cumbrae study went on to highlight the additional benefits of laypeople participation: “It should be noted that there are also educational benefits from the involvement of volunteers in scientific projects… it is a means of both raising people’s feelings of responsibility towards the environment and increasing their knowledge of environmental issues”. “An additional benefit is that volunteers may bring ‘new’ skills, experience, insights and enthusiasm to projects, and have the potential, therefore, of contributing significantly more to scientific investigations than simply providing a workforce to collect data.”