Citizen Science as a Novel Scientific Instrument

This is a guest post by Rob Stevenson, an Associate Professor of Biology at UMass Boston. This post arose from discussions in the DataONE PPSR (Public Participation in Scientific Research) working group.

“Nothing begets good science as much as the development of a good instrument” – Sir Humphrey Davy (1812)

Alewife at Central Street Counting board

In the way that smart phones have permeated our culture, citizen science seems equally ubiquitous, appearing at science conferences, museums, conservation organizations, government agencies, journal articles, web sites and yes, in blogs. Citizen science covers a diverse collection of activities in which groups undertake investigations alongside or under the supervision of scientists.  Michael Nielsen in his book Reinventing Discovery, describes citizen science as a crowd sourcing partnership between scientists and the public.  Caren Cooper uses the metaphor of citizen science as a kind of stone soup recipe. In this analogy, the monks become scientists, the pot becomes a database, and citizens contribute their observations instead of celery, carrots and onions.

Over the past decade I have been a local leader in monitoring Alewife populations, an anadromous fish, like shad and salmon, that return to fresh water to spawn, and a participant in protecting the rare Blanding’s turtle during nesting season. Through my experiences, I’ve come to think that the citizens in citizen science are like a new kind of scientific instrument.  This new instrument can make measurements that are not possible using the capacity and approaches of standard scientific enterprise.  This new instrument can process large amounts of data relatively quickly. This is the difference between a scientist going out and doing all the work or enlisting the help of citizens to gather observations that are shared with the scientific community, be it one scientist or a whole organization.  Citizens can allow a project to be sustained longer than what a traditional funding source can provide.  Citizens can also cover a wider geographical range, where scientists will be limited by the scope of the their range, by the area that one person can humanly traverse.

A metaphor for this new instrument is to think of the citizen participants as the pixel light detectors of a digital camera. A citizen science project directs all the pixels to point in the same direction, creating “images” that were not attainable before. Citizen science “smart pixels” are much sophisticated than digital sensors in our cameras. They can see much more than just color, detect much more than just light, describe their observations in detail and look in directions not initially designated by the project. Projects such as eBird, REEF, and CoCoRaHS have far outdistanced the sensing ability of the scientific community.

Richard Panek, in his book “See and Believing” describes how the development of the telescope radically changed our ideas about our universe and humanity’s place within it.  Perhaps you can agree with me that Citizen Science represents a novel class of scientific instruments, “intelligent telescopes” that are opening up new vistas of understanding in astronomy with projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Radio Jove, and in many other domains of knowledge. As more people participate, the soup of knowledge we create together will become more nutritious and delicious.

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One Response to Citizen Science as a Novel Scientific Instrument

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