The Rise of Grassroots Scientists Movements: How the Future of Marine Biodiversity Might Lie in the Hands of Citizens

Essay Hydrophis Archive

There are so many tales about how big our oceans are. Even said that all of our continents could be fitted into the Pacific Ocean tells us how gigantic our oceans are. This enormous earth’s ocean is the one that keep our weather in it cycle, it regulates the earth’s temperature and it’s sustaining the live on earth since millennia. But, since the dawn of human being and now with all of our advanced technology, we still didn’t know very much about our ocean. NOAA said that more than eighty percent of the earth’s ocean is still unexplored. That’s a huge irony since at 2019, NASA released three-dimensional mapping data from the moon, that roughly covers about 98 percent of moon’s surface. Furthermore, NOAA even said that only 35 percent of United States oceans and coastal waters have been surveyed, that means they still have a big chunk of the big blue that remain undiscovered. Enough said that USA has been the leading country in science and technology, and more than half of its citizen lives in the proximity of coastal areas.

How about Indonesia? Well, glad you asked. Despite being dubbed as the “Emerald of the Equator” and “Heart of the Coral Triangle”, citing it’s richness in biodiversity, Indonesia has not been doing so much effort recently. Scientists and Academics alike (from now on, we call them “the Professionals”) are still struggle to hold their footsteps in the realm of marine science. They are faced with a hefty array of biodiversity that still lacking the basic scientific data, but now also faced with a serious environmental damage that could decimate the live of the oceans denizens very soon. I’ll take my last article as an example (click the link to take a glance of it). Recently I said that Sempu Island still lacking of marine biodiversity data even though it is established as Nature Reserve since 1928, add more that Sempu Island is situated at the coastline of the most populated island in the World, and situated in the same province that holds three of the top ten University in Indonesia according to the recent QS University Ranking. So, these circumstances is really bringing a dreadful situation as we might not know what we have been lost as there are not enough scientific data from the professionals that could help to explain to us what is really happening around us.

This photo taken from an event on Bajul Mati Beach on sea turtle hatchling’s release. The Bajulmati Sea Turtle Center is a grassroot community that concerns on the sea turtle rescue on South Malang. Originally posted on my instagram @anthonikovii

The dawn of citizen science

now on, we call them “Amateur Scientists”). They could fully conduct the scientific research all by themselves, or taking a participation of a research that conducted by the Professionals. It is believed that citizen science has been conducted prior to the 20th century. Even Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, two of the most prominent scientists that discover a fundamental theory in Physics and Biology, both are self-funded researchers. In the mid-20th century, scientific data was dominated by “The Professionals” that worked in the University or other Government-owned Institutions. This is why at 1970, Philosopher Paul Feyerabend said that scientific research need to be democratized. It was at 2016 that citizen science become popular, mainly at the branch of biology, conservation, and ecology where citizens started to take a part on collecting and classifying data for scientific researches.

At the branch of marine biology itself, citizen science becomes so popular since the arrival of moderate-priced underwater camera at the common market and the rising popularity of snorkeling and scuba diving. By the early 2000s, millions of photos are already distributed through the web. This huge amount of data might dwarf the capability of the data that has been taken by “The Professionals” since they didn’t have a lot of time to spend on the field.

he capability and the quality of data gathered by the citizens are sometimes bringing a lot of surprises to the scientific community. In Italy, the “Occhio Alla Medusa” citizen science program helps the discovery of a new jellyfish species Pelagia benovici on the Italian Waters. It is so popular that it is featured twice on the Time Magazine (at 2009 and 2010 edition). Another example in UK, where citizen helps the scientific community to document a huge common octopus that was thought to be extinct from the UK waters. Even the data that collected by the Amateurs could help the scientific community to have a better view on looking the status of invasive species on their territorial waters. A research conducted at 2019 by examining 120 marine citizen science projects around the world, about 53.3% of the projects are now conducted at the national levels where 49,2% of the projects mainly focus on coastal ocean environments. On the taxonomical point of view, chordates (might be the fishes) are the most popular focus taxa with around 40% of the projects are revolving their data around this taxa. It is also said that 35,8% of the citizens are most likely to participate in field surveys, while the other 34,2% of them collecting data from reporting of opportunistic sightings.

This also means that every single person could bear the title to be a citizen science. Bystanders, beachcombers, tourists, everyone, could help the scientific community to build a better dataset to explain the change that happened around us. Indonesia itself has roughly 70% of its population lived on the proximity of the coastal waters. This means that around 180 million people live on the coastline, that’s around 30 million people more than the entire population of the Russian Federation! This huge amount of human resource might sustain Indonesia as the powerhouse of marine citizen scientist on this planet that helps us to bring a better understanding about one of the most important ocean region in the world! But given the reality that we still know just a fingertip of information about our own ocean, how this could happen?

We need you! start documenting and post them on your socials!

Research and development: Not a sexy business

When I’m discussing with some experts, ask them to share their opinions on this circumstance, they said that the government, doesn’t see the prospect of research and development as a profitable business. It is enough said that Indonesia is among the countries that spend so little amount of its money on the research and development. Indonesia is ranked at 44th in terms of its research and development spending with its spending is just around 0,1 % of its GDP. Seriously? Even our best friend and neighbor Malaysia spend around 1,3 % of its GDP on research and development (Even Sudan spend 0,2% of its GDP on research and development). Our poor form on research and development spending also mirrored on our scientific publication rank. A list by Scimago counts publications output from every country around the world from 1996 – 2019 stated that Indonesia only published 158.733 documents on that time range. Our neighbor Malaysia? They published 325.476 documents with around 8,41 citations per document. Indonesia also only have around five citations per document, indicate that we are also still lack of good quality research that published by our professionals (Come on, even Nigeria has 7,95 citations per document).

This kind of situation indicates that this country needs the hand of its citizen to cover this poor performance on global level. While until today, still I find difficulties to find some marine biology-specific citizen science program in Indonesia, but its “seed of hope” could be found anywhere. Thanks to the rise of marine tourism industry, Indonesian marine biodiversity is slowly getting its attention. Snorkelers and scuba divers, thanks to their ability to document every single life on their activity, are started to build scattered data around Indonesian marine wildlife on their personal website or social media. This kind of work should be appreciated by the professionals as they are providing an authentic and well-documented sighting where scientific community could use them to conduct their research. A study on Réunion Islands at 2018 involving four citizen scientists helps the scientific community to find tenths new records of marine species and also found a new one!

On the other part, 2020 is being the historic years for Indonesian Ornithologists as they finally launch the Indonesia Bird Atlas, a book that explain around 700 birds species distribution in Indonesia. That effort is made up by hundreds of Indonesian amateur birders around the country that helps to document and record every bird sighting around them and sent their data through a mobile app named Burungnesia. This successful combined efforts by the citizen scientists might indicate that the future development of our research on biodiversity might involve the assistance of their hand, where this kind of effort also should be replicated on the branch of marine science, so we also have a better understanding about our extremely rich coastal waters and beyond.

Long story short, we have the conclusions: Indonesia, mediocre research performance, hope on its citizen’s effort. So, how do we participate? What kind of effort that I could do to contribute to the scientific society? Simply start documenting anything that you found around you, flowers, herbs, bugs, birds, fishes (if you live on the coastline), or any damage induced by the human activities like pollution, debris on our waterways or on our beaches, urban developments on rural areas or around you, anything counts. Start to find some good platform on the web, there’s a lot of them I can’t mention them one by one, or simply upload them to your social media account and let the science do the rest, simply as that.

We also stated that conducting scientific research will not made anyone rich, but it helps the science community and government to make a powerful decisions based on the current scientific data. So, enough said that little data that you contribute today might paved a better path of future for the generations to come.



Thanks for reading until this point

I just want to address that this essay has made possible after I’ve involved on ten month journey with the Burungnesia teams, a collective of “Amateur” Ornithologists based in Batu, East Java on developing the “Atlas Burung Indonesia”. Atlas Burung Indonesia is a highly informative book that explains about the recent distribution of nearly 800 species of birds that found on Indonesia. Check their instagram page if to stay updated on their works.

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