Scientists Are Outsourcing Their Work — to You

Biologist Judy Camuso has been a volunteer owl bander for the last 20 years. Each fall, she captures, measures, bands, and releases hundreds of the birds in her backyard in Freeport, Maine. Camuso holds a young Saw-whet owl while demonstrating the band... Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

You don't need a Ph.D. to do scientific research. Or even a B.S. For more than 100 years, the general public has been pitching in to help scientists with everything from counting birds to recording earthquake tremors. Now, with the proliferation of portable, high-tech gadgets equipped with satellite navigation, smartphones with cameras and, of course, the World Wide Web, citizen science is skyrocketing.

While there appears to be no official statistics on how many projects out there use citizen science, one study showed that just six articles involving citizen science research were published in peer-reviewed journals in 2007. Only seven years later, 250 such articles were published. As a sign of its growing popularity, the first professional citizen science conference was held in the U.S. in 2015.

Citizen science is when regular people — not necessarily folks with a science background — help scientists with their research. The work is done on a volunteer basis and can involve one person or millions. One of the biggest issues, when it comes to scientific investigation, is always the sample size. The larger the sample, the better the data, so that's why an army of assistants is always helpful. The projects citizen scientists work on typically involve data collection, analysis and reporting in fields like astronomy, medicine, computer science, genetics and ecology.

While the number of projects is exploding today, some have been around for a long time. The National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count — billed as the longest-running U.S. citizen science bird project — started in 1900. 

In 1911, the American Association of Variable Star Observers first asked the public to help record changes in the brightness of variable stars, useful for sussing out evolving star systems' astrophysical processes. Such projects have been quite successful in providing scientists with a wealth of useful information, while also helping the participants learn about the scientific research process as well as whatever it is they're observing or recording.

A Citizen Scientist

Jason Daley of Lake Mills, Wisconsin, is an avid citizen scientist. A longtime birdwatcher, his involvement began when a birding buddy invited him to come along while he conducted a marsh bird survey for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. (Volunteers monitor marsh birds in Wisconsin wetlands at dawn or dusk two or three times during May and June.) Intrigued by the experience, Daley agreed to take over the surveying when his friend moved away two years later.

While many citizen science projects require little training, the marsh bird survey requires participants to learn the calls of about a dozen marsh birds, then correctly identify them via an online test. Daley studied the calls on his own, then took and passed the test. Learning the calls is critical for this particular study.

"Marsh birds are really hard to see and in remote places," he says, "so [scientists] don't have good data. The easiest way to find them is to listen, but most [people] don't know their calls. This is a way to fill that gap."

Five years later, Daley is still surveying the marsh birds as well as monitoring owls, whippoorwills, frogs and toads for other projects.

"For me, it's a kick in the pants to improve my skills as a nature lover," he says, "and at the same time it gives me some fulfilment. I'm actually doing something for a bigger cause."

Downside of Citizen Science

While there's a lot of enthusiasm for the public pitching in to help researchers, the practice has its critics. Some claim the quality of the data collected isn't up to snuff, as citizens aren't trained professionals. Some studies have shown this may be true, but quality is also an issue with data collected by professional scientists. Perhaps a bigger concern is the potential for a conflict of interest, as sometimes people volunteer for these projects to advance their own agenda.

Australia's Great Koala Count used members of the public to gather data about the cute, bear-like marsupials; the data was for use in the development of a koala management and conservation policy.

Afterward, a survey found that the volunteers held strong views on koala protection at odds with mainstream opinion. Nevertheless, researchers determined the citizen data was still valuable, in part because the project provided a means of dialogue with those most interested in the topic.

Websites like SciStarter have made it easy for would-be volunteers to find projects to work on. One very popular project is the Animal Ownership Interaction Study, conducted by the Center for Canine Behavior Studies. It's aimed at discerning whether your behavior influences that of your dog. Involvement requires filling out an anonymous survey about your interactions with your pooch.

Another top 10 project from 2015 is American Gut, presented by the University of California-San Diego. For a $99 "contribution," you're sent a kit to collect microbes from your mouth, gut or skin; researchers want to better understand how microbes affect human health and disease. Kids are welcome to participate. In Nanocrafter, you play an online game creating nanomachines using real DNA sequences, as you can see in this video:

Anything you just read seem interesting? Daley recommends plunging right in. "There are tons of opportunities. And all of these projects need people."

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