Flying ants and other myths…

Systematically gathered and analysed evidence is important, because it challenges myths and prejudices that we all have a tendency to develop. Sometimes these myths are important for innovation or policy, but other times they are just plain interesting. In the latter class, a fascinating study was reported by the BBC this week. The study shows that, contrary to a widely held myth, flying ants do not all emerge on the same day each summer. In fact emergence is spread over a more extended period.

As well as an interesting and counter-intuitive result, the study caught my eye as it is an example of citizen science. The data were recorded by members of the public, providing the researchers with an extended capacity to observe the ant behaviour. The study would have been far too expensive and difficult to carry out without this contribution from volunteers. This type of engagement is a fantastic way to get interesting research done, and also engage those outside of the research community in the process.

Great as citizen science is, we do need to be careful not to start believing another myth: that citizen science is limited to volunteers acting as data collectors or sophisticated image processors. Citizen science also needs to encompass involving people from outside the research community in shaping the nature and direction of research. While there have some moves to address this, another myth stands in the way; that allowing greater public involvement will reduce the quality or value of the research. Perhaps we need some experiments to put that myth to the test too.