The Optimist View: The surge and success of citizen science

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” – Rosalind Franklin

By Amelia Buckley

Several years ago, every member of my family unwrapped a bulky rain gauge on Christmas morning. A gift from my data-loving grandfather, the rain gauges were so that we could all take part in the CoCoRaHS citizen science weather project, an initiative where thousands of people across the US report daily rain or snowfall for their specific area to create a highly precise precipitation map for most of the country. 

My grandfather and a few of my dedicated relatives have been trekking out to the rain gauge every morning for years, but during the pandemic, more people than ever started heading out to measure rain, count the bugs in their backyard, observe the skies, and more. 

Stuck at home with extra time on their hands, many people have turned to citizen science this year as a way to keep themselves entertained and perhaps even have a hand in a scientific breakthrough. 

The advantage of the internet

Platforms like Zooniverse and SciStarter, which ask citizens to help analyze scientific data, have seen dramatic increases in membership and the participation is really having a positive impact on scientific research. One Zooniverse project, Snapshot Safari, asks citizens to classify animals caught on wildlife cameras. During the pandemic, it saw daily classification numbers jump from 25,000 to 200,000, completing the equivalent of 48 years of classification research in just one week. According to SciStarter, the platform saw a 480 percent increase in participation in April 2020 compared to the previous year. 

It’s no surprise that citizen science is seeing such growth during the pandemic. In addition to having extra time on their hands, people are also getting out in nature more to recreate safely and online citizen science groups can offer the sense of community many are craving right now.  

According to a Zooniverse survey, the top three reasons individuals join their platform are: wanting to contribute meaningfully to science, to enjoy a pleasant distraction from everyday life, and to be part of a supportive community.

The value of a human perspective

Most of the tasks for citizen scientists involve simple identification and classification work. Although AI systems can be trained to do this, part of the beauty of human participation is that humans have an innate special ability to spot something weird or out of the ordinary. 

For example, back in 2007, a project called Galaxy Zoo had people analyzing images of galaxies when one participant noticed an unusual-looking bright green object. The participant posted about it in the public forum and soon other participants also identified over 100 of these strange green objects. Researchers realized this was a previously unidentified type of galaxy and the data was published in a scientific paper crediting 10 citizen scientists from Galaxy Zoo for their contribution. 

If hands-on data collection is more your speed, platforms like iNaturalist rely on citizen field work to assist researchers. The app, run by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, allows users to log observations they make in nature to be used by scientists. The app expects to hit a record 50 million observations this year. 

If you love to write, check out Notes from Nature, a program run by SciStarter which relies on volunteers to transcribe handwritten notations on museum specimens so they can be available to scientists worldwide. 

A long history of discovery 

Although citizen science is finding renewed popularity during the pandemic, its conception can actually be traced back to the late 1800s when Wells Cooke, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, started the North American Bird Phenology Program. Through the program, private citizens recorded observations about bird migrations and populations in their area which they submitted to the American Ornithologists’ Union on notecards. And thus, citizen science was born. 

Another citizen science project with a long history, and perhaps the most famous citizen science initiative in existence, is the Christmas Bird Count put on by the National Audubon Society. Since 1900, the organization has sponsored a citizen bird count that runs from December 14 through January 5 to take census of US bird populations. 

Changing human perspectives

Some researchers strongly believe the impacts of citizen science go far beyond their face value of increased data analysis efficiency. The public’s trust in scientific expertise has unfortunately been declining in recent years, with the pandemic exacerbating this issue. Many leaders and researchers argue citizen science could be the collaborative glue needed to bring trust back to the scientific community. This is why the US and the European Union are both funding significant citizen science efforts. Encouraging people to become a part of the scientific process offers transparency and trust throughout the discovery process. It also helps people better understand the steps required to come to a scientific consensus. 

A malaria citizen science project, conducted in Rwanda, demonstrated how truly effective the process can be in educating not only researchers, but also participants. Citizens in Rwanda were asked to help collect samples of mosquito species in their area and report regions of high mosquito nuisance. Researchers were provided with advanced data to inform malaria mitigation strategies and citizens who participated were far more informed about malaria prevention techniques. They were also more likely to attend public meetings about the issue and help inform their fellow community members. 

“Volunteers showed significantly more social interaction, participation in malaria-related activities at the community level, and indoor residual spraying (IRS) acceptance,” the researchers write. “In addition, both volunteers and non-volunteers reported to have gained knowledge and skills about the use of malaria control measures in general.” We can see from this example how citizen science helps spread scientific information among participants and their communities as well. It’s a highly effective way to call awareness to critical scientific issues. 

Part of the true beauty of citizen science is that it offers any individual with some extra time and curiosity on their hands the opportunity to become part of something important. Something bigger than themselves. As SETI scientist Franck Marchis describes to Vox, “When science is not part of your life, it’s very easy to become against it because you don’t really understand exactly what those people called scientists are doing. My personal goal is that people consider science to be part of their life — not something you can do only if you have a PhD.”

“Scientist” may sound like a daunting term, but in reality anyone, even my 90 year old grandfather, can be a scientist. All it takes is a desire to dive deeper into the unknown and perhaps a rain gauge in your backyard. If rainfall in California doesn’t excite you, there’s a whole host of other topics just waiting to be explored by citizens like you!

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