What Is Citizen Science? History, Practices, and Impact

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Citizen science is the practice of involving non-scientists in practical, meaningful scientific research projects. The best-known examples of citizen science include bird observations and weather tracking—but these are only the tip of the iceberg.

Citizen science has been popular for well over a century, but in recent years, the internet has revolutionized scientists' ability to reach out to and engage citizen scientists in a huge array of research projects. Input from citizen scientists is crucial to certain forms of research; without their participation, many projects would be impractical or even impossible.

It's important to note that citizen science is different from amateur research. For example, a dinosaur enthusiast may spend a great deal of time and effort finding, identifying, and collecting fossils. But if their work is not connected to a larger research study run by a professional science organization, it is not considered citizen science.

History of Citizen Science

You can't have citizen science without professional scientists, which means that there were no citizen scientists during the Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment. Instead, there were amateur and "gentlemen" scientists, like Thomas Jefferson, who studied various aspects of the natural world. It wasn't until the 1800s that the concept of a "professional" scientist emerged—and the opportunity for citizen science evolved.

The First Citizen Scientists

The first true citizen science project was launched by ornithologist Wells Cooke. He reached out to amateur birding enthusiasts to collect information about bird migration. His program evolved into the government-run North American Bird Phenology Program. Information collected by volunteers was collected on cards; those cards are still available and are now being scanned into a public database. The database will provide important historical information about changes to migratory patterns.

Another very early bird-oriented citizen science project is Audubon's Christmas Bird Count. Every year since 1900, the Audubon has asked citizens to observe and collect information about local birds between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The Christmas Bird Count has been going on for over a century and is now a nationwide project with more than 2,000 amateur birding groups participating.

Citizen Science Before the Internet

While some types of research can be accomplished by a single scientist in a lab, many other types rely on the collection of very large amounts of data. Certain types of data collection are especially appropriate for citizen scientists, particularly when they require relatively simple tools that are available to non-professionals. In some cases, citizen science groups were able to organize volunteers. Citizen scientists were employed in particular fields including:

  • Stream and waterway monitoring
  • Insect and bird observations
  • Weather monitoring
  • Astronomical observation
  • Observations of plants and wildlife

In some cases, citizen scientists made it possible to collect a great many data points, making meaningful analysis possible. In others, the observations of multiple people in multiple locations made it possible to observe natural trends.

In the case of astronomical observation, it's not possible for one person to watch the entire sky every night—but hundreds of people can do just that. As a result, citizen scientists have actually discovered comets and other astronomical objects that professionals missed.

Citizen Science and Technology

By the late 1990s, the internet was available to a very large group of people around the world—and the concept of "crowd-sourcing" was beginning to emerge. Scientists saw the potential for engaging an international community of citizen scientists with the skills to upload information to a database from anywhere. Perhaps just as importantly, it became possible to instantly reach out to specialized groups with specific skills, qualities, and interests.

Another major innovation for citizen science was the smartphone. Apps now allow citizen scientists to actually perform research that would have required specialized equipment in the past. With the right apps, citizen scientists can easily identify plants and animals, measure temperature and air quality, identify colors and textures, and much more—all without spending money on research tools. Citizen scientists also use an array of smartphone "built-ins" such as GPS receivers and cameras, which greatly enhance the value of their findings.

Today, many institutions create opportunities for citizen scientists to get involved. From the Smithsonian's eMammal camera trap project to NASA's huge range of options, the world of citizen science has expanded dramatically.

Impact of Citizen Science

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Citizen science has had a significant impact on research outcomes in recent years. In fact, according to a study, citizen science data is generally of high quality and offers a range of advantages to researchers seeking "big data" for analysis. Citizen science also offers a number of other positive outcomes:

  • It involves stakeholder citizens in learning about their local environment and about science in general.
  • It provides students with opportunities to take a meaningful role in the process of scientific research, sometimes leading to careers in STEM.
  • It improves science literacy in general.

Today, as more projects are developed with citizen scientists in mind, researchers are also developing research and training opportunities for citizen scientists of all ages. This promises to improve outcomes both for the researchers and the citizen scientists themselves.

How to Get Involved with Citizen Science

Today's citizen science opportunities are as wide-ranging as science itself. That can make it tricky to choose the right projects for you or your family. Before getting started, ask yourself these questions:

  • Which area of science interests you? Are you interested in animals? Waterways? Stars? Medicine? Climate change? Plants?
  • How much time do you want to dedicate to citizen science? Some projects require just a few minutes while others require dedicated involvement over months or even years.
  • How "science-y" do you want to get? Some projects require training and mastery of technology while others can be completed with a simple stroll around the backyard.
  • What kind of activity interests you? The range of options is huge. You can review historical science documents, scan the skies for comets, test the water in your local pond, identify birds in your neighborhood, run your own weather station...
  • Do you want to involve your kids? Some citizen science projects are easy and engaging for kids; others not so much.
  • Do you want to work independently or as part of a larger organization? You can join projects and work on your own, or get together with volunteers.
  • Do you want to work online or in the "real" world? There are plenty of remote, online citizen science opportunities available.
  • What kind of organization interests you? You can do citizen science for research centers, non-profits like National Geographic and the Smithsonian, or join federal agencies like the EPA.
  • Do you want to stay local, or do you want to be part of an international research effort?

Once you've answered all those questions, you can use an interactive citizen science database to find the opportunity that's right for you. Some citizen science databases are specialized while others allow you to search through a wide range of possibilities. Here are some databases to check out:

  • SciStarter is a searchable database of citizen science projects that run the gamut from fun activities for kids to highly sophisticated projects that require training. You can search by topic (dogs, planets, etc.), by location, and by many other variables.
  • CitSci.org like SciStarter, CitSci offers a large database of projects of all shapes and sizes.
  • CitizenScience.gov allows you to search through a huge range of projects offered by the EPA, NASA, NOAA, the National Park Service, and many other agencies.