I recently attended an interesting lecture by Dr Bill Norris of Western New Mexico University on the role of the citizen scientist in botany. You may think of citizen scientists as belonging to a bygone era, aristocrats and country parsons dressed in prim Victorian frock coats collecting barnacles and butterflies, but they are still needed today. The ranks of field botanists are thinning. There are fewer academic positions available each year and there is a trend for botanists to go into laboratory work; important work, but not traditional botany.
Citizen scientists fill the gaps
Bill shared the stories of several citizen botanists he works with; retired individuals with a passion for field work. They include some people who had STEM careers (for example, a medical doctor and an astronomer) but the most successful so far is a retired postal worker. They perform detailed field work: collecting plants, noting details such as when and where they grow and flower, and what other plants grow with them. They preserve their specimens for future research, and sometimes contact international experts to help identify a plant.
One species new to science was discovered by a citizen in a popular state park, so there are discoveries to be made practically in your back yard. Citizen scientists even publish papers in peer-reviewed journals and win awards. Their inventories of plants will help us understand changes in diversity and distribution, prepare popular field guides, and recognize key identifying features.
Lots of room for citizens
There are estimated to be over four thousand species of plants in New Mexico but only three professional academic field botanists and another four or five botanists working for federal agencies. That leaves a lot of room for the citizen botanist to make lasting contributions to science.
You, too may have a second career or passionate avocation in science.