In this post Alexandra Palmer discusses her Perspective article ‘Getting to grips with wildlife research by citizen scientists: What role for regulation?‘ out now as part of our cross-journal Citizen Science Special Feature.

You can also read the authors’ plain language summary here: How should citizen science involving direct interaction with wildlife be regulated?

Wood mouse in a Longworth trap. Image by the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s National Wildlife Management Centre.

Our article responds to an important, but complex, question: How should citizen science involving direct interaction with wildlife be regulated?

This question emerged in the course work undertaken as part of an interdisciplinary project aimed at exploring social and ethical questions around animal research in the UK: the Animal Research Nexus. In particular, it draws on work led by Ally Palmer and Beth Greenhough focusing on non-laboratory animal research in the UK, including research with animals in the wild.

While all animal research in the UK is regulated, these guidelines and regulations don’t always easily translate to field sites in the wild, with some aspects of field research falling outside the scope of current regulations. Many of those interviewed in the course of this research pointed out that trapping, while clearly the most stressful part of research for a wild animal, for some species doesn’t require any licensing, training, or justification in the UK. Amongst other implications, this means that citizen scientists catching animals like rabbits, wood mice, and foxes can do so with minimal legal oversight. In contrast, citizen scientists catching and ringing birds require extensive training and licensing.

Given that capture and handling of wild animals can have important implications for their welfare, the idea emerged that this is not an ideal situation, in turn leading to the question: What should be done about it?

To help answer this question, we organised two events where we put the problem to stakeholders: first, a workshop where we discussed challenges of carrying out animal research in various non-laboratory research settings; and secondly, a public panel discussion at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Our three co-authors on this paper were invited to share their views at both of these events. Each of our co-authors brings to the problem a unique set of skills and interests. Jim Reynolds is a professional ornithologist at the University of Birmingham, who has worked extensively with citizen scientists throughout his career—including Roger Dickey, a veteran citizen scientist who has collaborated with Jim on a long-term seabird population monitoring study on Ascension Island. Julie Lane has worked in the field of animal welfare and wildlife research ethics for over 20 years, and has a particularly comprehensive understanding of the UK’s complex wildlife research laws.

In their reflections at our two events, our co-authors raised some important points and questions. For example, regulating wildlife trapping under the UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (A(SP)A) could help to ensure good welfare for animals trapped for science. However, the difficulty and expense of securing A(SP)A licences could deter citizen scientists from doing their work, thereby eliminating the important benefits citizen science can have for wildlife conservation, including involving the public in the production of important scientific outputs.

Our article in this special issue is an attempt to think through these complexities in more detail. We use animal research in the UK as a key case study, but we discuss what could work undertaken in other countries too.

One thing that we emphasise in the article is the importance of encouraging a participatory, process-oriented, and flexible approach to citizen science regulation. The goal should be to involve citizen scientists in decision-making, and encourage reflection on animal welfare and harm-benefit assessments rather than dictate when and why animals can be caught and handled.

A key strength of citizen science it is ‘democratic’ ethos. While increasing oversight of some wildlife citizen science might be important to ensure good animal welfare, it’s important not to lose sight of this ethos, and to keep encouraging citizen scientists to continue with their important contributions to animal science at large.

In the end, we were unable to offer a firm conclusion about what ought to be done about regulating citizen science. However, we do propose three steps to be taken, in the UK and abroad, to help to answer this difficult but important question.