Amateur naturalists have played a significant role in environmental research for over a century. The internet makes it possible to organize on a whole new level.
Call it what you will - citizen science, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding - opportunities for the public to get directly involved in funding and conducting scientific research are on the rise. Sarah Bois, Director of Research and Education at Linda Loring Nature Foundation, says she prefers the somewhat clunkier phrase "public participation in science" because it leaves room for the full range of ways that non-scientists can contribute to, and even drive, new research. Here are some examples:
- Look around you. The National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count - one of the longest-running surveys conducted by volunteers - is months away, but there's always the Cape Cod Osprey Project or eBird. Alternatively, you could track invasive plants in New England with IPANE or document the impacts of climate change through Project BudBurst. There are hundreds of other options to browse on the SciStarter website, or check with a nature center near you for local projects.
- Download an app. Put your smart phone to use in the service of science. Many projects now provide apps that let you report your activities, provide photographs or sensor data in support of your observations, and see other people's data in real-time. The SciStarter website lists hundreds of such apps that enable you to groundtruth satellite data, report bird sightings, even detail your sex life for the benefit of sex and reproduction researchers.
- Play games. Internet-based video games aren't just for fun. Help scientists map the human brain with EyeWire or unravel the mysteries of our cellular machinery with FoldIt or EteRNA. Or let your computer play while you're away, with Seti@Home (yes, it's still up and running), ClimatePrediction, or any number of other distributed computing projects that use the BOINC platform.
- Pay it forward. You can also help fund scientific research, and in doing so, use your dollars to help decide what research should be conducted (an idea that both excites and scares researchers). There are over one hundred projects looking for funding on the prototypical crowdfunding site, Kickstarter. Experiment and Petridish are crowdfunding sites dedicated to scientific research projects.
- Do it all. Our Radioactive Ocean, founded by Dr. Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, combines both crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, asking the public to propose sites to monitor ocean water for radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, then fundraise the money necessary to carry out the testing, collect the water, and ship it back to Woods Hole for analysis.
Neither crowdfunding nor crowdfunding are likely to supplant traditional research, Bois and Buesseler agree. In fact, at this point, many citizen science projects are as much about education as discovery. But both say the extra eyes, hands, and dollars can make it possible to pursue avenues of inquiry that wouldn't be feasible otherwise.
If you're a citizen scientist, let us know what you're up to and how it's going!