Citizen science isn’t new, but new mobile technologies open up huge potential benefits for science, society and the environment, write Michelle Kilfoyle and Hayley Birch.
It seems our modern addiction to smartphones, tablets and gaming is not just providing us with new means of communicating and killing time. It is also providing scientists with innovative ways in which to engage the wider public in science and expand their resources for research in a new wave of citizen science, or citizen cyberscience, if you will.
You may be familiar with citizen science, in which ordinary folk participate in scientific activity. Perhaps you had a taste of genetic sequencing in one of this year’s citizen science blockbusters, Fraxinus, the online game in which Facebook users match up coloured blobs (aka nucleotides) to score points.
Fraxinus also happens to provide a neat way of finding patterns in genetic data that could help researchers identify ash dieback-resistant trees in the fight against this devastating disease and, furthermore, taps into vast stores of computing power unavailable within scientific labs.
Or are you one of the tens of thousands of volunteers who have analysed online images of galaxies with Galaxy Zoo, helping professional astronomers make numerous discoveries, such as the first planet with four stars? Perhaps you’ve submitted your butterfly sightings via the Big Butterfly Count’s smartphone app, the collective results of which draw attention to a worrying decline in numbers for some species.
The rise of digital technologies in citizen science could create the impression that citizen science is a new thing. But while the internet has clearly increased opportunities for mass participation and ‘crowdsourcing’ data, there is a long history of gathering scientific information from amateurs.
The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count in North America, for instance, has been gathering information on bird sightings from enthusiastic twitchers since 1900. Initiatives like this can help researchers gather far more data across a much greater area than the capacities of their own research teams allow, and with important implications for monitoring the changing environment.
Look even further back in history and you will see that, prior to the 20th century, it was common for science to be done by amateurs. Remarkably, even Charles Darwin had no formal scientific training. It could be argued, therefore, that the concept of citizen science only makes sense in a modern age, where the professionalisation of science has otherwise excluded the rest of society from its activities.
In a recent report (pdf) we produced for the Science for Environment Policy news service, we were struck by the potential benefits of citizen science for both science and society, especially given the advent of new mobile technologies that enable remote participation. But the report raises interesting questions about who really benefits the most from these developments: the amateurs or the professionals?
One of the greatest challenges we met when researching this report was finding examples of modern-day citizen science actually led by citizens themselves – or, more accurately, by non-scientists (lest we forget that scientists are citizens too). We suspect that this apparent gap in activity could simply be a by-product of academics and NGOs being the ones who can shout most loudly about their citizen science, and its benefits.
Recognised impacts of citizen science on participants include its educational value, its possible role in raising awareness of key issues, such as water pollution or overfishing, how it could stimulate interest in science more broadly – not to mention its fun factor. These are all important benefits and by no means do we wish to dismiss projects with these goals in mind.
However, among the present spread of widely-recognised projects, there appear to be missed opportunities for citizens. Citizen science has great potential for enabling a more participatory democracy, where everyone has the chance to contribute thoughts on how science – and science-related policymaking – is done. But most well-known initiatives are the big crowdsourcing projects: big on the number of participants, but not necessarily the level of participation.
Science is a powerful tool. And citizens can do more than simply participate in it as data-gatherers; they can also be its driving force, using science to achieve locally-important goals.
There are some examples of citizen-led projects in our report that clearly show this. For example, the grassroots anti-fracking group Erie Rising in Colorado cited research to bring about a recent six-month moratorium on drilling. Elsewhere, in the Peruvian Amazon, the Achuar community learned how to use GPS equipment and cameras to document the damaging of effects oil drilling in their territory, and used this evidence to help drive the oil company responsible away.
It’s been said that mobile technologies, such as smartphones, can increase engagement in citizen science projects by shifting the balance of control between scientists and the wider public. However, a word of caution. Whilst much depends on the individual project, if true engagement is the goal, then these technologies could simply be putting more distance between citizens and those running the projects – particularly for sections of society that are less likely to have access to such technologies. Perhaps more meaningful engagement could be had in other ways, to help ensure that citizen science is not just for scientists, but citizens too.
- This post originally appeared on the Guardian political science blog.