Crowd funding projects has become a common phenomenon in today’s world, but crowd sourced science? What does that even mean?! This means that the public can contribute to scientific research – through the form of both data and ideas for advancements. It is commonly called citizen science, with the people doing it dubbed citizen scientists. With the rise of technological advancements, this is becoming more prevalent in our world today, and will likely play an integral role in the way that science progresses in the future.
What is citizen science?
Whether it’s measuring the air quality in your area, finding out about your pet’s personality, or playing a game on the internet that will advance research, there is a way for everyone to get involved with something they care about.
The idea of citizen science originated in the mid-1990s with Rick Bonney in the US, and Alan Irwin in the UK. Bonney saw it as the role played by the public in contributing scientific data for research. I prefer Irwin’s view, which takes this aspect into account, but also highlights the importance of science being responsive to citizen’s concerns or needs.
Scientific research is largely directed by the availability of funding. And while this means that large amounts of funding are poured into pandemics such as HIV and TB, there are not enough resources to address all the world’s problems, and low profile research areas get neglected. Citizen science helps to address this problem.
By involving large numbers of people, data can be collected at a level that no single scientist could hope to achieve on their own. These projects tend to be based online, through websites such as SciStarter and Zooniverse, making them accessible throughout the world. Some projects require nothing more than a computer and internet access. With projects ranging from astronomy to ecology, citizen science covers a wide range of interests, and allows people to get involved in driving research about what matters to them.
What does a citizen science project look like?
One of my favourite citizen science projects is eteRNA. This is an online game, where you solve puzzles about the structure of RNA (which carries genetic code, like DNA) according to certain criteria. The interesting thing is that you can fold the RNA in multiple ways, and the different structures formed have implications for how the RNA would affect things within living cells. This is what the scientists behind the project are interested in. The best part is that all you need for this is a computer and internet access. So if you’re reading this you have everything you need already!
For the birders out there, there are a number of projects for you, and you can be involved in looking at specific birds if you like. A really nice one is eBird, which is suitable for use anywhere in the world, and can be used to record anything from an incidental bird sighting in your garden, to a list of birds from an all-day excursion. The website collates statistics into graphs, and the data is used by scientists to track biodiversity and guide conservation programmes.
Another really cool project is Autoimmune Citizen Science, which takes the idea of citizen science and makes it highly personal, as people with autoimmune diseases record details of symptoms, treatments, and results. Autoimmune disease is a lower profile research area, so this project is an important step in driving autoimmune research, and giving people conclusive feedback instead of having to sift through conflicting information on the internet.
Cochrane, who form the gold standard for medical reviews, have recently introduced something called Cochrane Crowd, where you can help to contribute to their reviews by identifying randomised clinical trials.