This Month in Science: Citizen Science

The past few decades have seen an explosive growth in amateur scientists participating in formal research studies. This “citizen science” is scientific research that individuals of all ages and experience contribute to. Citizen scientists help collect and analyze more data from more places around the world than individual researchers are able to gather without help from the public1. In some cases, findings from these projects result in new discoveries and peer-reviewed publications2.

When considering “who is a scientist?”, there is a common stereotype of the stuffy old man holed up in a lab working in isolation. Science is often regarded as complicated, difficult to understand, and generally not for the public at large. These misconceptions prevent people from seeing how diverse and accessible scientific research can be. Before science became a specific career path with dedicated education and training, scientific discoveries were made by amateurs with a passionate interest in a specific topic. Gregor Mendel was a monk interested in botany who, through careful breeding of pea plants, developed the mathematical foundation of genetics3. John Audubon, a businessman who enjoyed watching and drawing birds, became the authority on American bird species and their conservation4. While there are aspects of scientific research limited to a laboratory with expensive equipment, amateur scientists contribute meaningful knowledge and further exploration in many scientific fields4.

The idea of citizen science is not new; however, the accessibility, popularity, and formalization of amateur science has increased dramatically. With the formation of groups like the Citizen Science Alliance, SciStarter, and Citizen Science Central, it is easy to find and participate in formal scientific research2. Amateur astronomy and birdwatching have long been regarded as hobbies, but through these citizen science groups, fields such as biology, chemistry, and physics have recently become more accessible to hobbyists. Citizen science projects seek to bridge the gap between scientists and individuals without formal training, while also increasing scientific literacy by involving the public in data collection, research, and discovery5.

In addition to engaging with scientific research, citizen scientists have made unique and exciting discoveries: lost satellites, exoplanets, comets, and new galaxy types were all found by citizen scientists6. Amateur scientists also contribute to global knowledge about monarch butterfly migrations, the distribution of plastic in the ocean, the health of coral reefs7, and population counts of bird species4, to name just a few. There are many projects you can participate in both locally and internationally. The options for contributing to scientific research are also varied; you can log on to a website and help analyze data that’s already been collected, or you can collect data in your own backyard to add to an ongoing study. The possibilities are limited only by your curiosity.

Below are some citizen science projects that you might be interested in:

  • The iNaturalist platform helps you identify plants and animals that you observe. You can also record your observations, adding important data to a repository that researchers use to “better understand and protect nature8.” There are many projects specific to North Carolina and even Wilmington.
  • Scistarter is a search engine for citizen science projects. You can search for projects by topic, age group, and geographic location.
  • Zooniverse is another database that contains many different citizen science projects. There’s something for everyone!




Previous Columns

October: Parker Solar Probe Voyaging to the Sun
August: Sea Turtle Season
July: Plastic Free July
June: All About Alligators

Citizen scientists collect dragonfly larvae
Photo courtesy of National Park Service
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