From plant hunting to virtual space exploration, how people-led science is taking the world by storm
If the American astronomer Carl Sagan’s lament was right, that “every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist and then we beat it out of them,” there are indications that this is changing. And more encouraging still are the signs that many adults are rediscovering their interest.
While citizen science – the term coined to describe amateur contributions to the field of science – may not be new, its popularity certainly is. More than half a century ago, British chemist Rosalind Franklin said: “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” Today, her words resonate more than ever. Volunteers the world over, often armed with little more than curiosity, are taking part in a growing array of crowd-powered research.
The scientific community is also changing. Recognising an opportunity for mass datasets, organisations now exist in Europe, the US and Australia to accelerate the uptake of public involvement in science. University College London (UCL) runs ‘extreme citizen science’ programmes, equipping people in far-flung parts of the world to improve their communities and environment through science. Meanwhile, Nasa is calling on the world to help validate the ‘big data’ obtained from its satellites, and London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) has its own citizen science lab.
Lucy Robinson manages the NHM centre. A scientist herself, she is passionate about public involvement: “What I love about citizen science is that it’s a really active way of learning by doing. It also lets you gather the sources and draw your own conclusions, rather than being told what to believe.”
Citizen science lets you gather the sources and draw your own conclusions rather than being told what to believe
The museum is gearing up for its biggest public call-out yet. Staff are on a mission to digitise their 80m specimen records. “This would be literally impossible without public involvement,” says Robinson. “It would take a thousand lifetimes.”
Volunteers from the museum’s Orchid Observers project have already identified 200 new orchid sites, a significant finding when the majority of British species of the plant are under threat.
Citizen scientists scanning the skies have also led to scientific breakthroughs. Last year’s partial solar eclipse helped to solve an age-old puzzle about the link between eclipses and a drop in air temperature, thanks to the input of thousands of British residents. The Reading University study was thought to be a world first in its use of near real-time weather monitoring by the public.
But it’s not just about getting people outside. Anyone with an internet connection can help unlock the mysteries of the galaxy, map the human protein atlas or assist climate scientists in charting weather patterns – all from their own homes.
Since launching in 2007, online crowdsourced research platform Zooniverse, has amassed 1.5 million global users. Their work has resulted in around 50 scientific papers and many new discoveries, including Hanny’s Voorwerp, a galaxy-sized gas cloud named after its schoolteacher-discoverer Hanny van Arkel, and the mysterious WTF Star (a playful abbreviation of Where’s the Flux?), which has befuddled astronomers the world over.
One of Zooniverse’s alumni is Ivan Terentev, a 27-year-old IT worker from Petrozavodsk, Russia, who became hooked on “the thrill of finding something new”. He is now listed as co-author of four scientific papers published by the site.
Zooniverse founder, Chris Lintott, says the level of interest has surprised even him: “It’s inspiring that so many people give up their time to contribute to advancing our knowledge of the universe.”
Main image: Amateur astronomers gather in the Samalayuca desert, Mexico – Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
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