UW News

July 10, 2013

Julia Parrish speaks at White House about citizen science

News and Information

Julia Parrish was one of 12 “champions of change” invited to share their ideas on public engagement in science and science literacy June 25 at the White House.

Parrish, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences and associate dean of the College of the Environment, founded a citizen-scientist organization in 1991 to document what’s normal and what’s in flux on our coasts by counting seabird carcasses brought in on the tide.

Julia Parrish

Julia ParrishBenjamin Drummond

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST, has grown from 12 volunteers to a citizen force 850 strong, working from California to Alaska. Parrish says the team was born out of the realization that “scientists alone can’t begin to document what’s normal, let alone how fast things are changing.  We need a willing army to make that happen. In short, we need citizens – the locals who watch, and know, and love their backyards, their environment.”

The data collected has been used to establish critical baselines for sources of seabird mortality ranging from oil spills to changing climate. An example: Working with oceanographers and marine biologists, volunteers documented the largest ever die-off of seabirds – more than 8,000 – from a harmful algal bloom. That information assisted the Washington Wildlife Commission in setting duck hunting limits for bloom-affected species.

The other champions of change included amateur and nonprofessional scientists who conduct research, often by crowdsourcing, according to information from the White House. The 12 spoke during a live-streamed event  – Parrish speaks about 11 minutes in – and shared their ideas on engaging people in science.

As Parrish wrote on the champions of change website, “If almost a thousand people are willing to survey their coastline for beachcast birds every month, some of them driving and hiking for hours to get there, all of them relegated to the weather the weekend throws at them, just imagine how many thousands of people we could engage in, let’s just say, slightly less smelly pursuits.”