I will discuss in this short article a concept that caught my attention, and which I find of very big importance nowadays: citizen science. Not only I believe it gives palpable scientific results, which we have seen coming over the last few years, but also it makes one of the leading popularization methods, again, a proven fact.
It is hard to say how citizen science started. A definition describes a citizen scientist as “a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an amateur scientist”. You all probably think that all amateur astronomers, for example, are citizen scientists. And they are. Not once an amateur has made significant contributions to astronomy. For example, The American Association of Variable Star Observers is an organization founded in 1911, which gathers data from amateur astronomers.
The first recorded use of the term dates is from 1989 when 225 volunteers from the US collected rain samples to assist the Audubon Society in an acid-rain awareness-raising campaign.
Zooniverse, And Galaxy Zoo
The Zooniverse project is a great example of what can be done with citizen science. It is one of the biggest citizen science web-portals in the world, and it is the first one I ever encountered. As of March 2019, the number of registered users reached 1.6 million, and the data gathered from the project gave birth to more than 300 scientific papers.
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Galaxy Zoo is one of the projects happening on Zooniverse, and it was made by Chris Lintott and Kevin Schawinski. It was launched in July 2007, and Schawinski says that he got the idea while being in New Mexico, and having the task of classifying 900 000 galaxies by eye. “I classified 50,000 galaxies myself in a week, it was mind-numbing.”.
Galaxy Zoo recruited volunteers to help with the largest galaxy data we ever had. Opening the project to the general public saved the professional astronomers the task of studying all the galaxies themselves. More than 40 million classifications were made in 175 days by more than 100 000 volunteers. It would have taken 3-5 years for a single person to finish the job.
Why couldn’t the data be classified by computers? It has been tried by the very best researchers to come with new pattern-recognition software but without success. It seems like humans are still the best in the tedious job of classifying galaxies and other objects.
“One advantage is that you get to see parts of space that have never been seen before. These images were taken by a robotic telescope and processed automatically, so the odds are that when you log on, that first galaxy you see will be one that no human has seen before.”
How Much Quality Can Research Like This Provide?
This has been a problem tackled for a long time, with various responses. There is a fairly big number of ‘serious’ scientists, as they might call themselves, who strongly disagree with this kind of data analysis. But there is also a huge number of scientists who are in favor of it, with research papers backing them up. I myself, from my humble position, truly believe in the effectiveness of citizen science.
John Losey, the creator of the Lost Ladybug Project (an amazing organization promoting citizen science and scientific education to children in the US, founded in 2000) made a statement saying that the cost-effectiveness can outweigh data quality issues, “if properly managed”. What does ‘properly managed’ mean?
There are a lot of ways to control, up to a certain degree, the activity of the users of such a citizen science platform. For example, “citizens” can have some information about them, and they could be given tasks that they have no difficulty in executing. Also, users can gain something like “trust points”, which can give them access to more important and harder tasks. On the same idea of the “trust points”, users’ loyalty and the time spent working can gain them “experience”, which again could be an indicator for selecting the suitable “citizen scientists” for a job.
I find the whole ‘citizen science’ thing an incredibly rewarding field to tackle, and I feel that methods for improving this are limitless. Who knows, maybe I will launch a citizen science project of my own sometime soon.
A ‘Romantic’ View
What I, for the sake of a nice title, named “romantic” view, is not even that bad. Citizen science is what every scientist wished, and the state in which citizen science is now would make Carl Sagan extremely proud. Why? Because it unites people in one of the most important purposes of the human race: understanding the world we live in. It gives the opportunity to everyone to contribute with something in that direction. And, of course, it is pushing people to go beyond citizen science, and maybe get into personal research too.
“In many parts of science, we’re not constrained by what data we can get, we’re constrained by what we can do with the data we have. Citizen science is a very powerful way of solving that problem.”
In The End
I strongly encourage the amateurs who are reading this to join a citizen science project. I find it an extremely meaningful thing to do. Also, I think that if you have any children, you should definitely show them web platforms like Zooniverse and encourage them too to join a ‘real scientific research’ project.
I also believe in the strong value citizen science has for education. It will surely encourage a lot of children, teenagers, and maybe even adults to pursue science, and I am confident that we will get to a time when people will have scientific conversations, kids will be motivated and willing to have a future in science, and research will be done in every corner of the world, by as many people as possible. Kinda utopic, right? Who knows, maybe we will witness something like that in the next decades.