By Paul Davis
“Citizen science”, the involvement of the general public in scientific research, has the power to simultaneously democratise and stimulate science. By harnessing the inherent power of large groups of volunteers, researchers can break free of the limitations of their equipment while offering the general public the opportunity to experience and get involved in science.
From its early roots in fields like amateur astronomy or ornithology, community participation is not a new concept. However, its formal recognition is a relatively recent occurrence, varyingly defined since the mid-1990s and only entering into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014.
The role that communications technology has had in this development cannot be overstated. Websites and programmes allow volunteers to engage with crowd-sourced investigations with ease, even from the comfort of their homes. Most also explicitly educate about their aims and demonstrate their results by curating information sections or news feeds.
Much like supporting an election, there are passive and active approaches. Passively, one can contribute funds. Actively, one can campaign by knocking on doors. The equivalents in citizen science involve passively providing time or resources or actively engaging in data acquisition, analysis, and interpretation.
One of the most topical passive examples is the Folding@home (FAH) project. A collaboration between multiple research institutions launched in 2000, its software allows users to donate computer time on their CPUs and GPUs to power protein folding simulations. Such simulations often put strain on the time and resources available to a research group, but outsourcing processing power has allowed FAH to contribute to impactful research on diseases as varied as Alzheimer’s, cancer, Chagas, and, most recently, Covid-19.
Earning a Guinness World Record for being “the most powerful distributed computing network in the world” in 2007, FAH has produced results for 225 peer-reviewed papers to date. It is currently on a “COVID Moonshot” sprint to computationally assess novel drugs to treat the Coronavirus. For those anxious for the pandemic to pass and worried about the pace of progress, this provides a real, meaningful way to contribute to a cure.
The motivation for volunteers is simple. Contribute to world-changing research by sitting back and allowing your computer to run. For extra incentive, each simulation carries a number of points that can be accumulated for a team. That’s it. There are no prizes or deadlines. The will of the people to advance knowledge and an extra competitive flair are all that is needed.
Where FAH employs a ‘hands-off’, semi-automated experience for its volunteers, other projects are more ‘hands-on’. Allowing users to become ‘space archaeologists’, the GlobalXplorer platform asks users to survey sets of satellite images of archaeologically important regions to look for potential dig sites or to report signs of looting or urban encroachment.
This work would be tedious for researchers conducting these surveys manually, while the use of AI may invite doubts as to the robustness of the programme. However, by training users to spot the tell-tale signs and features to look for and then comparing results across multiple users for the same images, no stone is left unturned. Additionally, volunteers learn about the importance of and threats to regions such as Egypt, Peru, and India.
From astronomy to ecology and from quantum physics to sociolinguistics, the number of past and present citizen science projects continues to grow. One need only search the internet to find a project to contribute to. The sharing of knowledge is one of the key tenets of scientific process, and with more people better connected than ever before, everyone stands to gain from the power of citizen science.
Image: GlacierNPS vis Flickr