New roles for Citizen Scientists

As an academic scientist, busily working in a lab on a very specific project, I rarely stop to think about the role of everyday citizens in scientific progress.  The release of  a recent story on BBC news highlighted the role of 500,000 citizen scientists in the largest survey of the environment, the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project.

Originally designed simply to get participants outside and enjoying their surroundings and raising awareness of the health and safety of the environment, the happy side effects of such a project include generating massive amounts of data, a sense of accomplishment and interest in science, and a much larger survey of diverse areas than a handful of scientists could ever complete. Using a specialized smart phone app, participants can count and photograph all the different types of  earthworms they find in different locations.  Scientists can then use this information as a measure of the health of a particular environment.

The publication of this article just 6 days ago led me to think about other areas where citizens can get involved in scientific projects.  I’ve long been aware that individuals often collect weather information including barometric pressure, precipitation measurements, temperature, and humidity among others, and this data is used by a broad group of organizations including the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Kennedy Space Center, Department of Homeland Security, and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.  The number of these home weather reporting stations has increased steadily over several decades.  Additionally, over 200,000 bird watching citizens with varying birding abilities and ranging in age from the very young to the very old participate each year in Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, collecting data that is used for conservation initiatives and public consumption.  Data from this project gathered by citizens helps scientists understand the impacts of West Nile virus on bird species, is used in Land Managers guides, and documents how birds are affected by climate change and acid rain.  Very important work!  Indeed, even at the University of Washington, a collaboration between the laboratory of Dr. David Baker in the Biochemistry department and the UW Center for Game Science created the Fold-it program.  This program allows citizens to play a game in which selected proteins are folded using a set of configurations in the game, and then scientists in the Baker lab analyze the results to determine whether an individual has identified a native structural configuration.  This information can then be used to predict protein structure to inform molecular biology experiments and lead to potential disease treatments.

There are also dedicated websites that individuals can peruse to see if there is a particular project that catches their attention.  These include Scistarter, the Citizen Science Alliance, Citizen-science.org, Citizen Science Quarterly, and CitizenSci.  Scistarter has listed the Top 12 Citizen Science Projects of 2012 here, and in August of last year, The journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment published the first ever issue dedicated solely to citizen science projects.

Citizen science has broad implications for policy as well. The University of Oregon has published a Theory of Citizen Participation outlining the ways in which citizens help influence public policy.  Researchers who establish projects that untrained citizens can contribute to hope to raise awareness of science, garner popular support for scientific research funding, and increase public trust in science and scientists, all of which influence policy decisions. Indeed, many hope that this type of scientific reporting will help science seem less intimidating to the public, and make many more scientists realize the power of thousands of people for gathering accurate data that will influence public policy moving forward.

Citizen science is a wonderful way to get children and adults interested in science by taking an active role in the discovery process, and is also a fantastic way to garner support of scientific research.  I encourage everyone to look at the available projects and get involved today!

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