Because of the increasing accessibility in the social-media dominated and technologically-connected contemporary world, a novel power is placed in hands of everyday citizens. Knowledge, education, and information are literally only a click away. While these truths may seem obvious – even trite – what many individuals do not realize is that the converse is also true. International development and interconnectivity has not only led to ease of exploration of current knowledge, but also can aid the development of new knowledge, especially in science. This revolutionary movement, aptly coined “citizen science,” represents the radical forefront of scientific research that inspires citizens to pursue science as a passion.
Consider these anecdotes: The eBird online community connects an international community passionate about bird-watching to submit more than five million observations every month. These observations will be later used in at least 90 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters about subjects from ornithology to statistical modeling. Zooniverse has empowered participants to categorize millions of astronomical and biological photos, later incorporated in over 50 peer-reviewed articles. Such statistics are immensely impressive even for a world-class professor, but to be attributed to the efforts of volunteers ranging from elementary school students to firefighters? Simply incredible.
But these mind-boggling results are only a small sample of what citizen science has done and the immense scientific potential it holds. From bird-watching to statistical analysis, citizen science truly epitomizes the notion of “power in numbers”;taking a simple measurement or observation and compounding it among hundreds of thousands or even millions of dedicated volunteers results in efficiency of scale. And while it is true that individual scientists, college students, and trained researchers can perform these measurements perhaps with greater alacrity and accuracy, Donald Owen, an environmental protection specialist with the National Park Service (NPS), simply states, “We can’t afford them.” Citizen science allows these professionals to be replaced with impassioned amateurs who have the ability to gather data on a larger scale and longer time period, allowing researchers to more effectively focus their efforts in specialized fields.
Besides, citizen science has one extremely important added benefit for its participants that any other facet or alternative lacks: it encourages interest in science. The importance of science education in schools and early exposure to science remains a priority in cultivating future doctors, mathematicians, and engineers. While educators vehemently push for greater emphasis on STEM education, students would rather be in the field exploring local fauna instead of annotating another biology textbook. Because individuals who volunteer in studies often include science teachers with their students, science citizenship is the perfect opportunity for students to tangibly immerse themselves in the scientific method. They learn to question, to hypothesize, and to develop a scientific approach of thinking.
However, perhaps the primary concern many may ask about citizen science is: is it feasible? Can citizen science produce rigorous, defendable results similar to those duplicated by PhD’s in the same field? And the answer is overwhelmingly yes. According to Brian Mitchell, an NPS ecologist who serves as program coordinator for the Northeast Temperate Network, citizen scientists can collect data that is as accurate, reliable, and usable as those generated by professional researchers. “If we explain to them what they should be doing and how to do it”, states Mitchell, “Nothing we’re doing is so difficult that volunteers can’t do it if they are properly trained.” This training is manifested in the form of carefully crafted, easy to understand instructions and online training videos and resources. Furthermore, addition “security” measures exist to attenuate variance among the data points. Thanks to citizen science, scientists have access to literally tens of thousands of data points for each statistic and are fully prepared to scrutinize data and remove egregious outliers from such a set. Finally, the ultimate measure of comparing the data collected by citizen scientists to those of university trained researchers ensures its success. Georgia Murray, an Appalachian Mountain Club staff scientist adds, “We pair-trained staff with our citizen scientists so we can compare data and determine its reliability.” With these measures in place, it becomes obvious that citizen science is a legitimate media of producing rigorous, reliable science.
The scientific problems of today, whether it is climate change or mass extinction of species are global problems. And citizen science has immense potential to provide global solutions. Through incorporating thousands of everyday individuals, it can nurture early involvement in science while simultaneously making rigorous contributions to the scientific community. And at its essence, it allows everyday individuals to contribute their part in making the world a better place.
After all, isn’t that what science is all about?
Bonney, Rick. “Next Steps for Citizen Science.” Next Steps for Citizen Science. POLICYFORUM, 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.