Why should the broader public care about the science we do, especially if it is basic rather than applied research? Though we don’t like to admit it, it is our, scientists’, job to help the public appreciate basic science and understand its value. Funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation recognize the need to identify and pursue “Broader Impacts” of research projects, and such broader impacts are now a required section of most grant proposals.
My favorite kind of outreach entails raising awareness and appreciation of biodiversity – even the biodiversity found in urban or suburban areas, right in your backyard! A BioBlitz is a 24 hour event, during which scientific experts identify as many species as they can find within a delimited area. The public is invited to partake in the fun: observe scientists at work, interact with them, engage in hands-on educational activities, and even help “do” some of the science. BioBlitzes are becoming more popular, and 2016 was the year of the blitz, as it marked the 100 anniversary of the National Park Service.
Below are a couple of videos of microscopic life of New England – a swimming, multiflagellated asexual cell (zoospore) of a common filamentous alga Oedogonium, and a quick look at a water bear (tardigrade), the ultimate survivor of the animal world that can be frozen, dried, heated, even sent to outer space and come out of it unscathed.
Smartphone technology also offers some exciting opportunities to “democratize” science, including biodiversity science. Not only can you use your phone to identify a plant species, you can even contribute data to a global database using a tool called iNaturalist. I am using this tool to log observations of freshwater algae in the Northeastern USA. However, anyone can snap a picture of an organism, upload it from their phone, include their geographic position, and (if they are unsure about the species ID) ask the iNaturalist community to help identify the species. If two or more experts agree on an ID, the entry is considered research-grade and is incorporated into the database of Global Biodiversity Information Facility, GBIF. Thus, pretty much anyone can make a contribution to a large-scale biodiversity inventory project.