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Citizen science: Research in high gear

Speed read
  • The citizen science movement is changing the face of science.
  • Like parallel computing, citizen science speeds the process of discovery.
  • Citizen science has room to improve, and should engage — not abuse — the pool of science laborers. 

Chandra Clarke is on a mission to increase your knowledge. Her tool of choice is citizen science, and she knows a lot about it. With degrees in space exploration studies, industrial robotics, English and Psychology, and as author of a Master’s thesis on using citizen science for space advocacy, she is peculiarly equipped for her task. You can find her over at Citizen Science Center, her online record of all things citizen science-y.  

We caught up with her recently and picked her brain about her favorite topic.

What is citizen science? What is it not?

Chandra Clarke.

The definition of citizen science has evolved quite a lot in the past few years. I tend to think of it as real science done by non-professionals with the assistance of professionals. It’s a bit different from what we think of as amateur science (a non-professional, working independently, doing research), and it is definitely different from traditional studies where the average citizen was a study subject.

What makes a good citizen science project?

From a scientist’s perspective, a good project is one that tackles a very specific research question, and that produces very robust data. From the citizen’s point of view, a good project is one that is very clearly explained in terms of why it matters, and how it all works. Zooniverse projects are probably the best examples of how to do these things well.

What does citizen science offer to the world?

First and foremost, if offers the average citizen a way to help solve the world’s most pressing problems in a meaningful way. 

<strong>Teach your children well.</strong> Video games don't hold a candle to the thrills offered by scientific exploration. Active learning leaves a much deeper impression on the mind. Courtesy Jeannine M. Image has been cropped to change aspect ratio. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Second, it makes science accessible again. If you’re actually doing science, rather than just reading about it in a magazine, you’re more likely to get a much deeper understanding of the problem being investigated. 

Finally, citizen science is speeding up research. With the help of citizen scientists, we’re able to go through mountains of research in a matter of months, sometimes weeks. On the data collection side, a single scientist only has so much time in the field, whereas citizen scientists can send in data from around the globe, 365 days a year.

What are the shortcomings of citizen science?

At the moment, I don’t think that there’s enough emphasis on what the citizen scientist gets out of the work. Project organizers sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of citizen scientists as a vast pool of unpaid labor, and not giving enough thought to providing value back. I have seen a lot of project websites where the organizers don’t even bother to explain the background to the project or why it is important in layman’s terms.

Someone who steps up to be a citizen scientist will do so because they’re interested in the research question. They want to help, and they want to make a difference, so they’re due some respect and the courtesy of clear (not condescending) background information.

<strong> Parallel processing.</strong> Citizen science is more than just an upaid labor pool. The volunteer force accelerates discovery, because more eyes, hands, and minds are engaged. Courtesy Kevin Bacher. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The movement also needs to work on recognition. Clearly, when there’s a project that involves thousands of people sifting through images, you can’t list them all individually — but at the very least, there ought to be verifiable mechanisms in place whereby a citizen scientist could cite their time given in the Volunteer section of their resume.

What are the challenges facing the citizen science movement?

Let’s face it: Science is less about cool explosions in the lab, and more about slow, painstaking analysis and attention to detail — citizen science is no different. After a while, even the most dedicated volunteer is going to get bored.

Chandra's top 5

  • Mastodon Matrix — Participants were sent a bag of dirt from a mastodon excavation site, and given instructions on how to sift through it and look for things like hair, bone and teeth fragments, shells, and plant material.
  • EteRNA — A visual puzzler where you design RNA strands.
  • Monarch Watch — Purchase and put together a butterfly way station to help monarch conservation efforts.
  • Hummingbirds@Home — Report on hummingbird activity in your garden.
  • The Planet Four series — Giving us a better understanding of Mars.

One way to address this might be to have multi-phase projects, whereby people could take on different roles, likein-the-field data collection, data processing, crowdfunding initiative to fund the next stage of research or visualizations, and so on. When you think of all the time, money, and creative energy that people put into going to a Star Trek convention, you realize there’s a lot of untapped talent and enthusiasm out there. The trick will be to find a way to harness it in a way that is productive.

Who could most benefit from a citizen science offering?

I am surprised we haven’t seen more crossover from strictly citizen science projects into other areas. For example, I’m surprised that there aren’t more projects set up to collect anonymized health data from people. We’ve already ‘accidentally’ built most of the infrastructure for it, in the form of smart phones with apps that help you track what you’re eating, how much you’re exercising, how well you’re sleeping, and so on. We’d need to do a fair amount of work to mitigate some of the pitfalls of self-reporting, but the potential there is huge.

<strong>Two birds with one stone.</strong> What better way to see the outdoors than on a citizen science project? Here, a science volunteer gets away from it all while conducting a loon survey. Courtesy Glacier GPS. <a href=

I’m also surprised governments haven’t tried to tap the power of citizen reporting to help prioritize what needs fixing.

For example, there’s an app called Marine Debris Finder, which lets citizens report where they are seeing trash on waterways in a specific region in the US. Rather than sending out staff to inspect each waterway on a schedule (and maybe find that five out of seven are fine), you can send staff directly to the ones that need attention. There are numerous possibilities there.

Chandra's got a lot more to say about citizen science.  Check out her book, Be the Change: Saving the World with Citizen ScienceWant to know what the future holds for citizen science? She dusts off her crystal ball and offers her predictions over on her website.

And we've written more than a few citizen science articles ourselves. Use the tag "citizen science' to search through our archives.

For instance, here's one about US National Science Foundation (NSF) opportunities for citizen scientists.

Here's another about smart phones and sex research. And here's another story about how you can use your smart phone to help endangered tigers.

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