Collaboration is a fundamental component of many modern scientific studies. Individual scientists are often unable to master the large variety of skills required to solve complex problems. Similarly, the massive amount of data that can be collected from modern techniques can be difficult to analyze by lone researchers. Fortunately, modern technology has made collaboration easier than ever before – scientists can communicate and come together to share their expertise and overcome obstacles. In addition, many scientific advances that become dependent upon data obtained from the community, known commonly as “Citizen Science” or “Community Science”
Community science projects recruit volunteers to collect or analyze data that are useful to scientists. The volunteers often log their findings into an app or a website, where it is combined with other data to create mind-numbingly large databases – often far in excess of what any team of researchers could collect on their own. Community scientists can be anyone from children to adults, depending on the study, and there are great opportunities for outreach and activism!
There is a long list of successful community science projects that have changed the way we think about weather, climate, ecology, and human health. Even former United States presidents have been involved; Thomas Jefferson collected weather observations from across Virginia, and Theodore Roosevelt kept observations of birds from the White House in Washington, DC. Modern projects recruit citizens to solve 21st-century problems. For example, citizen scientists can help the National Park Service monitor mercury levels in dragonfly populations through the Dragonfly Mercury Project, which helps environmental scientists monitor contamination in national parks. Community members with a background in programming can volunteer to help the NIH create tools to solve biomedical research problems through NCBI Codeathons. One of the most successful projects, Folding@Home, has allowed volunteers to use their computers to help scientists discover the structure of proteins. This is an extremely complex problem, but through the use of volunteers’ computer processing power the Folding@Home project has helped to push the boundaries of drug design and improved our understanding of disease.
In 2016 congress passed the “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act” which includes a section that authorizes federal science agencies to provide funding for citizen science projects, outlines protections for volunteers, and requires any data collected to be shared publically. All of the information related to government-sponsored citizen science projects (past, current, and future) can be found at www.citizenscience.gov, including ways to register yourself or your students!
Although citizen science projects assist scientists with numerous studies, and contribute significantly to our scientific understanding, there remains a question of how useful data generated from the community be and how much it can be trusted. Fortunately, a recent study from the Field Museum in Chicago, IL, found that citizen science data was “largely accurate”! This study tasked volunteers with collecting data on thousands of liverwort leaves from the museum’s collection, a task that would take individual scientists ages to complete. Importantly, the analysis from the museum shows that citizen science projects can be both a valuable teaching tool for the community as well as a way to collect meaningful data. You can read more about their findings and the value of the data on the Field Museum’s website.
Are you participating in any citizen science projects? If so, let us know on Facebook or Twitter so we can help to highlight your work! And if you’re not currently involved (but would like to be) here are a few excellent starting points: