Most people think of academic research as the purview of professors in laboratory coats, poring over data in laboratories far removed from the public eye.
And to some extent, John Silander, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, agrees.
“So much of what we do as scientists is specialized in our ivory towers,” he says. “But part of the spirit of our work is to involve people who are not scientists.”
Silander is part of a project known as the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England, or IPANE, which trains regular Janes and Joes to identify and map invasive plants in the Northeast.
The work, says graduate student and IPANE volunteer coordinator Sarah Treanor Bois, has not only proven valuable to scientists, but has helped people to better understand their environment.
“It really demystifies the whole science thing,” says Bois. “We can talk with people about the scientific method and show them the data they collected. They really love seeing their data used.”
Founded by Silander and the late Leslie Mehrhoff, former curator of the UConn herbarium and a fervent naturalist, IPANE is now in its tenth year, going strong thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like the Audubon Society’s famed Christmas Bird Count, a yearly bird survey started in 1900, and other long-running ecological surveys, IPANE aims to collect data on the distribution and abundance of species in the wild.
Bois leads most of the IPANE trainings throughout New England. Many volunteers already know a bit about the outdoors and can spot invasive species, but the trainings make sure that the observations are done in a consistent way, so they can be used as scientific data.
A unique feature of the IPANE program is its emphasis on “absence” observations in addition to “presence” data. Volunteers not only record where they see invasive species, but where they don’t.
In a recent article in the journal BioScience, Bois, Silander and Mehrhoff point out that this absence data contributes to more robust statistical models that can predict geographic areas that are at high or low risk for an invasion.
“We want to know where invasive species are, but we also want to know where they aren’t,” says Silander.
More robust predictions mean that researchers, land managers and policymakers can use the data to make decisions about land management and conservation. Throw in the fact that IPANE’s data is freely accessible in online databases, says Silander, and it can lead to real-life change.
“We can ask, what’s changing? Are species changing in their distribution over a long period of time? You can’t buy data like that,” he says.
Bois and Silander note that in recent decades, the number of scientists devoted to being naturalists and taxonomists, who historically classified and mapped species in the wild, has declined significantly. These days, scientists can’t devote as much time to inspecting a plants or animals themselves in the field, which makes citizen scientists all the more valuable.
“Citizen scientists become the eyes and ears in the field. They provide a way of getting essential data in a way that’s reproducible,” Silander says.
Bois was a volunteer herself for IPANE before graduate school, and Mehrhoff and Silander were major reasons she decided to come to UConn.
“It was important to me when I came to grad school that I remained in touch with the community,” she says.
And over time, Silander notes that interface with the community can really turn people into citizen “scientists.”
“There’s a lot of science illiteracy out there,” he says. “This program gets people involved and doing science before they even realize it.”