By: Darlene Cavalier and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang | posted October 9, 2009
Yale University astrophysics professor Kevin Schawinski studies how galaxies form. But his most valuable tool isn't a telescope or arcane theory. It's Galaxy Zoo, a project that has enlisted the help of more than 150,000 "citizen scientists" to classify a million galaxies.
Why use people rather than computers for such an undertaking? At least for now, humans with a little training are more accurate than expensive software. And when you have a million galaxies to classify, you want all the help you can get.
Not so long ago, "citizen scientist" would have seemed to be a contradiction in terms. Science is traditionally something done by people in lab coats who hold PhDs. As with classical music or acting, amateurs might be able to appreciate science, but they could not contribute to it. Today, however, enabled by technology and empowered by social change, science-interested laypeople are transforming the way science gets done.
Who are citizen scientists? A survey conducted by the forthcoming ScienceForCitizens.net Web site found that 46 percent of citizen scientists have graduate degrees (compared to the national average of 10 percent). Like President Obama and 53 million other Americans, a majority of citizen scientists hail from the Generation Jones group, aged 44–55, described by commentator Jonathan Pontell as having "a general aching to act."
Technology makes it easier for people to get involved in serious science. The Internet has dramatically reduced the cost and difficulty of sharing information and obtaining or using high-quality scientific instruments. The spread of mobile smartphones has been especially important for democratizing participation in science. GPS and digital photography have become available to the masses; soon, we will even see cell phone microscopes that take color images of malaria parasites and TB bacteria using fluorescent markers.
Citizen scientists don't do scientific research for a living; they practice science for personal satisfaction. Many work with grassroots organizations or professional scientists in academia or government, or form their own social networks. They believe that research and discovery should be accessible and useful. More than half of all basic research in the US is federally funded, after all. And it doesn't take a PhD to grasp modern scientific problems like climate change, become involved in monitoring environmental conditions, or participate in policy discussions. Turns out, it's a short leap from supporting science to participating.
Contributing to contemporary science
Some citizen scientists look to the stars. GalaxyZoo is just one program popular with amateur astronomers. Other citizen scientists are focused on Earth through formal and recreational projects. BeeWatchers, a program sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, relies on citizen scientists in its preservation efforts to identify more than 200 types of native bees and the plants they pollinate (hear the Science & the City podcast about BeeWatchers on www.nyas.org/bees). Some of the more than 670,000 recreational fishermen in North Carolina are using Twitter to log their catches, sharing critical data with marine biologists and state officials in the process. Across the country, more than a half million amateur chemists and biologists monitor the quality of America's waterways. Many organize into local chapters operating on $2,000 a year or less and feed their findings to databases used by professional scientists and policymakers.
Through projects like these, citizen scientists are collaborating with professionals, conducting field studies, and adding valuable local detail to research. Their data are improving local decisions and policy-making. And their independence sometimes frees them to ask questions that lead science in new directions.
The final citizen frontier
What's next for citizen science? We may soon see the citizen science equivalent of Big Science or Revolutionary Science—discoveries and collaborations that bring together millions of people, and change the dynamics of innovation and research. Yale's Kevin Schawinski envisions a day "when you've got a quarter of a million enthusiastic people knocking on your door." At that scale, "the kinds of tasks that suddenly become possible are on an entirely different level."
Citizen scientists may also move into space. CubeSats—satellites roughly the size of large coffee mugs—are already being put into space by NASA, and some experts predict they will be affordable to the masses within a decade. Imagine one of science's final frontiers, formerly open only to governments and rocket scientists, accessible to all.
No matter what fields they work in, citizen scientists will continue, as Schawinski puts it, to "bring their insights, organizational skills, and a sense of community" to science.
Darlene Cavalier is the founder of ScienceCheerleader.com, a blog that advances adult science literacy and promotes the involvement of citizens in science and science-related policy. She is developing ScienceForCitizens.net with her partner Michael Gold and Science House. This major multifunctional Web site will act as a centralized hub to enable people to learn about, participate in, and contribute to science through recreational and formal research activities.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University and cofounder of the Palo Alto Strategy Studio, a research and consulting group based in Silicon Valley. He specializes in forecasting the future of science and technology.