March 25, 2019

The amateur has their place in science

Over the years I have been proud to declare myself a “citizen scientist” when I‘ve gone out to monitor bird numbers in places as far-flung as New York City, or the Glenorchy rubbish tip.

The subject was seagulls on both occasions and although gulls might be considered by many a humble and non-attractive species I was happy to do my bit in the interests of research into their habits and numbers.

I may have been making a mistake, however, proclaiming myself a citizen scientist.

According to the doyen of bird monitoring in Tasmania, Mike Newman, I and all the other thousands of birdwatchers who take part in bird surveys across Australia should proclaim we are merely enthusiastic but dedicated amateurs making a contribution to the science of ornithology in our own way.

We should not tread on the true scientists’ toes, or at least give the impression that we might have more expertise.

Dr Newman, one of only three Tasmanians to be awarded a life membership of BIrdLife Australia, discussed the role of the amateur when he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the national organisation’s local affiliate, BirdLife Tasmania earlier this month.

The “rebranding” of the term citizen scientist came as a disappointment to me. I was never interested in science at school, never went to university and started life as a messenger boy in the world of journalism, so to carry the “scientist” label had given me much pride.

The “amateur” carries a sense of the eccentric about it too but, then again, anyone who dodges muggers In Spanish Harlem on Manhattan to count numbers of laughing gulls, or braves icy winds at the Glenorchy tip on a winter’s day to survey silver and kelp gulls must be considered eccentric, if not mad.

Dr Newman’s point is that a line can be drawn between the work of the amateur and the profession of ornithologist, if not a rigid one.

The scientist might consider the surveys compiled by the amateurs as “grey literature” as opposed to the peer-reviewed publications of the professional researchers but the former still provides vital and unique information for scientific research.

As Dr Newman pointed out there was much cross-pollination between the scientists and the amateur.

“The amateurs need expert help, and the professionals desire data,” he said.

Mr Newman has been involved with monitoring Tasmanian birds over a period of 50 years,  about the same time the first systematic annual surveys of Tasmanian wading birds started, the oldest data sets in Australia.

The convener of BirdLIfe Tasmania,  Dr Eric Woehler, said the Tasmanian records went back way before monitoring became – dare I saw it – more professional with dedicated surveys in defined areas. The Tasmanian records – approaching 1.6 million of them – in fact extend to the 1840s when the pioneers and settlers started to jot down their bird sightings at random, including those of the “stump bird”, the dusky robin that was noted as perching on the stumps of cleared trees.

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