Citizen science is a new name for an old concept. OpenScientist has defined citizen science as “the systematic collection of data, development of technology, testing of natural phenomenon, and dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis.” Less formally, citizen science is any scientific research that’s done by amateurs rather than professional scientists.
In the past, citizen scientists such as Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Percival Lowell played a major role in the development of science. These citizen scientists were usually men of wealth, since only men of substance could afford the leisure time and equipment for such pursuits.
As science developed, however, experimental hardware became larger, more specialized, and more expensive. By the 20th Century, scientific instruments were often beyond the reach of even wealthy individuals. Citizen science became less common. Contributions by amateurs were generally relegated to a few niche areas while “mainstream” science became, more and more, the exclusive domain of universities, government agencies, and similar research institutions.
In the 21st Century, however, we are seeing renewed interest in citizen science. Student and public participation is being seen as an important part of formal and informal education. Grassroot movements such as the Maker community are fostering interest among the masses. Modern citizen science is often performed in partnership with professional scientists who have come to see citizen science as a valuable asset. Recent advances in technology are allowing amateurs to once again make contributions to world-class science. Most significantly, these advances are affordable. Today, citizen science is no longer limited to the very wealthy.
Citizen-science projects can take various forms. In some projects, citizen scientists gather data that will be analyzed by professional scientists. Birdwatchers help perform population counts for ornithologists. Photographers submit sighting photos to the Whale Shark Photo Identification Library. Weather watchers collect data for projects such as the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network. NASA has developed an iPhone app, called Meteor Counter, that allows skywatchers to record and report meteor sightings.
In other projects, citizen scientists help to analyze data that has been obtained by professional scientists. Often, this is done via the Internet. Data may be analyzed automatically using a citizen scientist’s home computer, or it may require the use of human eyeballs. Many of these projects are hosting on the Zooniverse website. Citizen scientists searching data from NASA’s Kepler satellite have discovered new planets circling distance suns — just one example of the many important contributions now being made by citizen scientists.Some citizen scientists are searching data from NASA’s New Horizons probe to find ice planets in the Sun’s Kuiper belt, studying solar eruptions using data from the STEREO satellite, or categorizing images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, while others are listening to whale songs, helping transcribe weather logs from old ships, or helping to study galaxy and store formation.
Some citizen scientists perform both functions, collecting and analyzing data. Amateur astronomers analyzing their own observations have played in important role in cometary discovery, and many comets now bear the names of amateur astronomers.
Citizen science takes place in many venues. Museums, schools, conferences, science fairs, universities, planetaria, nature centers, and, of course, private homes, to name just a few.
Some citizen-science projects involve travel, such as the expeditions organized by Earthwatch. Citizen-science projects can even involve space travel and overlap with citizen space exploration. Citizen space explorers Mark Shuttleworth and Greg Olsen performed citizen-science experiments during their trips to the International Space Station. Mark Shuttleworth did AIDS research and Greg Olsen performed tests of sensor technology.
With the development of new low-cost reusable suborbital spacecraft, citizen space exploration will boom. Citizen science will be an important part of that boom. Since the beginning of the space age, more than 50 years ago, fewer than 500 people have travelled into space. Soon, there will be hundreds, then thousands of people traveling into space every year. The rapid advance of low-cost space travel will create exciting opportunities for both citizen and professional science. Every person who travels into space will have an opportunity to take a scientific experiment along, if he or she chooses. Some of these will be professionally built experiments, operated by citizen scientists who are also citizen space explorers. Others will be built by citizen scientists.
Citizens in Space will help develop some of these experiments and train citizen space explorers to operate them. We will serve as a match-making service for citizen space explorers and professional scientists. We will help professional scientists find rides for their experiments on citizen spaceflights and help citizen explorers find experiments to fit their interests. We will help students and teachers incorporate citizen space exploration and citizen science into science, technology, engineering, and math education. If you’re a scientist at heart, we hope you’ll join us on America’s next great adventure.
Related topic: Citizen Space Exploration