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In our 4G-network-shrinking-world, social media communication has revolutionized sharing accurate information reliably and instantly. So reliable that fieldwork research traditionally conducted only by scientists is now being transformed into community- based science projects, involving non-scientist science-loving volunteers called ‘citizen scientists’. Scientists are stepping out of their Ivory Towers of Universities and research laboratories, to engage with the society and lend their expertise and knowledge to develop sustainable, general public scientific initiatives – called citizen science. 

Dr. Erin Bayne Associate Professor at Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, has pioneered a successful citizen science project in collaboration with conservation biology students and over 1800 citizen scientists, to collect data on avian mortality in Edmonton, the results of which are published in Wildlife Research (2012). Dr. Bayne is enthusiastic that “academicians can now use technology to easily train interested [citizen scientists] to collect large amounts of data that would otherwise be impossible to do them ourselves”. But he cautions, “Citizen Science efforts without a good understanding of scientific principles of data collection and experimental design are doomed to failure”. Exciting projects like this are springing up all over the world. Take for example, the project created by Louise Emmons, Bret Whitney, and David Ross Jr that culminated in a fascinating and an incredibly useful audio CD which compiled characteristic sounds of over 100 mammalian species in the Costa Rican rainforests. This is part of the several citizen science initiatives at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which since 1966 has enlisted the help of over 200,000 volunteers worldwide to classify bird observations and collectively generate what is today’s largest and most comprehensive repository on bird data. Across the globe, technology has empowered citizens to voluntarily take up the role of scientist to systematically collect scientific data in diverse areas – from physics to geology to marine biology. Be it FrogWatch Canada or Hummingbirds @ Home that study human-environmental interactions influencing animal populations, or Project MERCCURI or μBiome that populates microbial data from hundreds of human volunteers to understand dietary and lifestyle impact on human health. The Zooniverse: Snapshot Serengeti project can bring cheer to wildlife photographers interested in processing thousands of live snapshot images of ecosystems, while gamers get to play against the EyeWire Project and map their retinal neuronal cells to study brain functions.

Citizen scientists have access to some incredible mobile apps and premade kits to share collected data with scientists, who will then compile and analyze statistical trends to make the data publishable in refereed scientific journals and conferences. Strikingly, these research findings rely entirely on volunteers such as yourself, your grandmother, your neighbors’ kids, hockey players, or the cab driver that drives around the city making thousands of observations…anyone, with little or no scientific training. But why engage volunteers when scientists could simply program supercomputers to collect data? Of course, computing has advanced the art of data analyses, but citizen science relies on public engagement, and exchange of ideas and opinions between science experts and science enthusiasts. Like-minded youngsters and adults have a unique intuition, passion and scientific curiosity that when shared in a meaningful approach, can exponentially scale up the reach of these projects. Suhel Quader is heading two such assignments in India: Seasonwatch, a 20 year project studying changes in seasonal cycles of plants and Migrantwatch, a published 4-year research effort studying migratory patterns of birds indicative of seasonal changes. On the advantages of citizen science, he says “they help adding to the scientific knowledge base and also change us as citizens — to care about the environment and develop a relationship with what is around us.”

What’s next for citizen science?

Scientific innovations impact the air we breathe, the food we eat, the distances we travel, and the way we now perceive media, communication, education, health and society. Technology has democratized accessibility to scientific information, and created higher scientific awareness and visibility of public amongst policy makers and decision makers. Shouldn’t science then be included in our powerful public policy decisions? During the 2012 US Presidential election campaign, ScienceDebate.org invited thousands of concerned citizens to post what they thought were the country’s central science issues, and the top questions were then posed to the candidates. Marvelously, citizens from all walks of life freely began debating on topics ranging from economics to space expeditions to belief systems. This citizen science initiative was highly popular and a great success, because it was solely based on the interest and intent of the common man’s quest for the right of information and assessment of the impact of science and technology in their lives. As more citizen science projects innervate societies, larger communities are engaging in real life scientific projects that are gradually transforming the way science is perceived and performed, and with the power of technology and media, we may not be far from when citizens could influence how tax money should be assessed when budgeting funds for scientific work. As US anthropologist Margaret Mead rightly said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

***A version of this article can be found here.