How Citizen Science is Helping Improve the World of Research

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.

History of Citizen Science

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.

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

To be an expert a hundred and fifty years ago required two things: time dedicated to thinking and investigating a subject, and a community to validate (or reject) your thoughts and observations. Citizen Science/Humanities is offering a modern equivalent to the 19th century periodical: a place for the public to spend some time investigating data while building a community and developing some expertise along the way.

For Victorian naturalists, a community could be formed through letter-writing networks, and societies, clubs or various other meeting places. The primary community site for Victorian naturalists, however, was the emerging number of specialist periodicals which formed through the 19th century. Journals like the Midland Naturalist or Hardwicke’s Science Gossip were places for anyone interested in natural history to communicate with each other, exchange information or objects, debate new topics, and drive new research questions. These are the requirements of developing expertise.

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.

Current Model of Citizen Science

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.

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.


Citizen science isn’t just nice to have. Sometimes it’s the only way to get research done.

“I think now the vast majority of academics recognize that, if you’re trying to do something over extended time periods or big geographic areas, citizen science is the tool you need to use,” said Bonter.

Even the US federal government recognizes the potential. Last fall, the Obama Administration held an event encouraging government agencies to incorporate citizen science into their research. It also released the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, a resource designed to help agencies create and manage citizen science projects.

This wouldn’t be the first time the federal government recruited the public to help with research. For years, it’s run a program in which volunteers catch, tag and release birds so they can be monitored over time. But the goal now is to initiate many more projects that get the public involved.


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