They say that 'citizen science' is the new black. These days, the involvement of science hobbyists and keen amateurs is much in demand across a whole range of disciplines; their enthusiasm, powers of observation and insightful analysis can make an invaluable contribution to numerous research projects.
They were effectively gentlemen amateurs with the drive – and funds – to pursue their own research interests.
However, these gifted amateurs often relied on input from a whole network of amateur correspondents to help them with their work. For instance, Charles Darwin built his theory of evolution by natural selection on the evidence supplied by hundreds of citizen scientists all over the world. His correspondence, which runs to some 15,000 letters, is preserved at the Darwin Correspondence Project in the Cambridge University Library.
The project’s associate director, Alison Pearn says Darwin could never have accumulated the breadth of evidence that underpins the theory without the enthusiastic support of amateur naturalists. She explains: “Darwin corresponded with people from all walks of life, plant and animal breeders, gardeners and naturalists, but also diplomats and explorers. It's exactly the same as people do today in what we call citizen science.”
These days, there are numerous projects that rely almost entirely on participation by enthusiastic members of the public. They range from national species counts like the UK’s Big Garden Bird Watch and Big Butterfly Count to online knowledgebases such as www.BugGuide.net, which helps identification and research in the USA and Canada.
Citizen science isn’t confined to the ‘softer’ end of the biological science like natural history. Recently, the UK public was invited to participate in a mass study of the human genome as part of the UK Personal Genome Project. This is part of the wider global Personal Genome Project and could provide a massive free tool for scientists to further understanding of disease and human genetics. Participants will receive an analysis of their own DNA, but need to understand that this is an open data project and anonymity cannot guaranteed.
If you prefer to be one of the people wearing a lab coat, rather than simply a data subject, then dropping into a citizens’ lab for a spot of ‘bio-hacking’ may appeal. We recently ran an item on how bio-hackers created bioluminescent plants in the USA (see ‘Trees That Glow in the Dark’ but this kind of informal approach is catching on in other parts of the world.
One example is a ‘DIY biology’ group operating at the London Hackspace. They include a mix of amateur and professional biologists, attracted by the potential of molecular and synthetic biology. They say that anyone is welcome and you can find out more information about the group in this short video.
As with natural history, citizen scientists also have a proud tradition in astronomy. Perhaps the ultimate amateur scientist of recent years was the late, great Sir Patrick Moore. An extremely distinguished astronomer, he was nevertheless completely self-taught and always prided himself on being “just an amateur”, despite enjoying the recognition and respect of fellow scientists from all over the world.
Astronomy is a particularly fruitful area for the citizen scientists because of the huge amounts of data collected by earth-based astronomers and satellites. The problem is, however, that much of the visual data analysis can’t simply be automated; the human brain is still much better at sorting through images of galaxies, for instance. This is why Galaxy Zoo (http://www.galaxyzoo.org) is looking for assistance from lots of volunteers to help classify images from sky maps that originated in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
US television personality and educator, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” is CEO of The Planetary Society, and a firm advocate of the general public’s ability to participate in meaningful research. He explains: “We are dads, moms, grandparents, teachers, kids, scientists, engineers, and space geeks. We are those who reach out into the Universe to seek answers to those deep questions: ‘where did we come from?’ and ‘are we alone?’”
His organisation lists a whole host of participatory projects, including “many opportunities for citizen scientists to assist in the analysis of the huge amounts of data collected from spacecraft missions or other records that are then distributed out to volunteer researchers of various levels and interests”.
If you fancy having a go at some citizen science why not take a look at this list of projects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_citizen_science_projects) and join in. There are also many others around the world – try Googling ‘citizen science’ – or simply start your own project!