Ordinary people changing the face of discovery

Science has been relying on the work of citizen scientist’s ordinary citizens who’ve aided with science research for centuries. Researcher Caren Cooper highlights the work of citizen scientists in her new book “Citizen Science, How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery.” She joins Hari Sreenivasan via Google Hangout.


Science has been relying on the work of citizen scientists, ordinary citizens who aid with science research, for centuries.

Researcher Caren Cooper highlights the work of citizen scientists in her new book, 'Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery.'

She joins me now via Google Hangout.

Let's just get a definition of 'What is a citizen scientist?'

Well, a citizen scientist is someone who helps in scientific research, and it can be in so many different ways.

It can be from someone sharing their bird-watching checklist, someone monitoring their water quality, someone hooking up their computer to a distributed computing network, someone tagging butterflies.

It can look so many different ways.

So many different ways that people get involved in genuine scientific research.

Oftentimes, they're sharing information that collectively makes some big discovery.

Now, I remember in the '90s -- I'm aging myself now.

But the search for extraterrestrial intelligence had a screen saver that my computer could use the excess power.

You know, that was a relatively passive experience.

What are some projects that are happening today where people are actively contributing something for greater understanding?

Well, let me start by saying there's literally thousands of citizen science projects out there.

So, really, like, anything someone might be interested in, any kind of species or phenomenon, there is a project out there that's coordinating volunteers to study it and understand it better.

There's a lot of bird projects.

Ornithology is a huge area in citizen science, just because people love birds.

And that's some bias there because I'm an ornithologist, so that's where I'm most familiar.

There's projects with marine pollution, you know, like, finding marine debris, finding little nurdles, which are, like, little plastic pellets that are major pollutants.

There's projects like following the phenology of spring, the timing of spring, like when flowers bloom, when trees leaf out.

That kind of stuff.

So some are really long-term projects to look at phenomenon over years, something that one scientist -- like, they could collect data with the help of volunteers over time frames that are longer than their own careers, really.

There's projects that are very large-scale.

It seems like there's also communities that are encouraging new scientific projects to emerge.

I mean, I think of SciStarter, similar to Kickstarter, where people are throwing up their ideas saying, 'Here's how much -- what I need in money and what I need in time.'

Yeah, SciStarter's a great system for citizen science because, like I said, there's thousands of projects, and it can be sort of overwhelming to sort of navigate this space when everything is changing so quickly.

And, so, SciStarter has sort of a project finder where people can search for projects based on their interests or their skills or what kind of activities they want to do or the location, you know, where they live.

So it's great, really, at matching people and projects together.

Is there an attitude adjustment that's started to happen in the world of academia and science where -- not that they had their nose held up in the air, but, you know, there has always been a resistance -- 'Oh, I don't know the quality of the data.

I don't know if I can trust this information coming from these sources.'

But now when you see publications, peer-reviewed journals starting to accept some of these, is that shifting?

Yeah, it slowly is shifting, I think.

I think everyone, scientists and even non-scientists, often have that initial skepticism like, 'What?

How could it be that people without any scientific training could actually help in real scientific research?'

But there is a lot of lay expertise, and it really can vary.

Yeah, I have seen a shift in the scientific community toward people understanding a whole host of ways that we manage data quality and make sure that it's fit for the uses that it's appropriate for.

And yeah, I've been, you know, part of a movement to make that more prominent and to help scientists and others see that, actually, citizen science has been around a really long time.

It just hasn't always had that name, and so it's really gone unacknowledged.

I mean, that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to write the book was that this is, like, this great thing that's happening, and it's so unacknowledged and undervalued, and that it really should just be a household term.

Scientific frontiers have advanced so far that some of them have kind of hit a point where, in order to keep advancing, they need to collaborate not just with other scientists, but with everyone.

Like, they actually need citizen science to answer the kinds of questions where some of the fields are going.

You know, I think back to farmers that have kept almanacs of their property and their crops year after year after year, and they've observed everything and they've catalogued everything meticulously just like a scientist would, and it also occurs to me that, just looking up at the sky at night, I mean, astronomy is a field where people almost get to name a galaxy if they find it.

Right. Yeah, actually, one of the oldest citizen science projects in this country is the Cooperative Weather Observer Network run by NOAA, and that started in about the 1880s.

And it was farmers, actually, who volunteered to set up weather stations and report those data back.

And, yeah, amateur astronomers, they're often called, you know, are the ones that find comets and asteroids and stuff.

And there's a lot of online citizen science, where the whole project is exclusively run online.

So it's not making, like, necessarily a new observation out in your neighborhood, but it's actually tagging or processing information that's either collected from automated systems or in some other way.

So how do you see citizen science progressing?

I mean, if it picked up momentum where it is now, in the next few years, do you just think that it's kind of... Do you see sort of high-school classrooms and middle-school classrooms contributing in a pipeline, or people not necessarily seeing science as something other, but really just part of life?

Yeah, good question. Yeah.

I mean, my hope is that it does become so mainstream that is just a part of daily life, and that when people consider career options, you know, maybe they want to go into science, but also they think, 'Oh, yeah.

I love science, but I also love these other types of careers, but I could always have science be something that I do as a citizen scientist,' right, just like people do sports or art, and they don't necessarily think, 'Oh, I'm gonna become an artist or a professional athlete.'

It's the same with science.

There's so many things about it.

All right. Caren Cooper, author of 'Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery.'

Thanks for joining us.

Thanks for having me.