0913 GMT January 29, 2020
Citizen science is a simple concept with big implications. It's the idea that people with no formal scientific training can contribute to meaningful discoveries. And it's taking off in a big way. Today, people from all manner of backgrounds volunteer their time to help scientists do research they could never do otherwise. They can help turn a scientist's team of just a few undergrads into a team of thousands.
If you talk to the people who run these programs, they'll tell you this isn't new. Amateurs have contributed to scientific research for centuries. Many scientists of eras past were nothing more than intensely curious people who took the initiative to ask questions about the world around them. Even well-known scientists relied on volunteers to push their fields forward. Carl Linnaeus, widely considered the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, relied upon specimens sent to him by amateur scientists to build his species classification system.
But since the late 19th century, when full-time jobs in the sciences became more common, the notion of non-professionals doing scientific work started to become marginalized. Can the untrained public really be trusted to do legitimate science? Now it's clear the answer is yes. And technology is a key reason why.
Today's citizen science projects tend to fall into two categories: People either go out into the field and collect data on the plants, animals and conditions around them, or they sift through mountains of data to help find the interesting bits. They do this using technology many of us take for granted — smartphones, digital cameras and Internet connections.
Is that a laboratory in your pocket?
Cornell University has organized a massive network of volunteer data collectors. Through its eBird program, run by Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, people can submit reports about the types of birds they see nearby. During the lab's volunteer projects, people identify bird species, snap pictures and even record birdsong with their phones, then send that information in.
One of those projects, the Great Backyard Bird Count, happens every February. Participants note what birds they see, then submit their sightings and location through an online form. That data gets added to the eBird database and is used to update maps of bird distribution in North America.
With that data, "we can almost instantaneously create a map of where snow buntings or American robins are," said David Bonter, assistant director of citizen science at the Ornithology Lab.
Of course, it wasn't always so quick and easy. Cornell has involved the public in scientific research since the 1960s, back when today's technology was unimaginable. Even when Bonter came to Cornell in 2002, almost everything was done on paper. People would mail in their findings at the end of a birding season.
"We'd spend months scanning data in," he said. Now Cornell can get much more data much faster. eBird receives tens of millions of records from across the globe each year. And Cornell makes all that information available to anyone who wants it. So a scientist working on climate change, for example, could use it to see whether certain environmental changes have affected bird migration.
That's just one example. NASA's S'COOL program (for Students' Cloud Observations On-Line), invites students to take photos of nearby clouds and send them to the space agency. NASA uses those pictures to validate its own satellite measurements. NASA gets the hard data it needs, and teachers get a chance to involve their students in a hands-on science project.
Just one of the photos analyzed by people through Snapshot Serengeti.
Another recent project, called iSPEX-EU, recruited people around Europe to do an air pollution study. In that project, people snapped a sensor on to their smartphone cameras and took pictures of the sky above. Scientists could then compare air quality in 11 European cities without the expensive travel.
Some citizen science projects can be done from the comfort of your couch. In NASA's DiskDetective project, images from telescopes are posted online. People review those images and look for debris disks around stars, which is where scientists believe new planets can form.
A similar project, Snapshot Serengeti, asks people to classify animals photographed by camera traps in Tanzania. This approach allowed researchers to categorize hundreds of thousands of photos in about a week — a feat they could never have accomplished on their own.
Quantity and quality
This is all well and good. But when the people doing the work have little to no formal training, can you really trust that data?
"That is the number one issue for citizen science," said Amy Kaminski, senior policy advisor at NASA's Office of the Chief Scientist.
But both Kaminski and Bonter agree that data quality is a concern in all scientific research. Even professional scientists aren't infallible.
"There are scientists who are bad at collecting their own data out there too," Bonter said. "There are undergraduate field assistants who don't have a clue what they're doing."
If you're trying to do something over extended time periods or big geographic areas, citizen science is the tool you need to use.