Over the last few years a new trend in scientific research is emerging – an increasing number and range of science projects are relying on the contribution of volunteers or as they are now called, citizen scientists.
Citizen science is not new. For hundreds of years people with no professional credentials have been contributing to scientific research. Amateur astronomers, naturalists and geologists have been involved in the scientific endeavour.
However, it is only the last few years that citizen science is flourishing and engaging a worldwide audience. The Internet and high performance computing coupled with distributed computing technologies have heralded a revolution transforming citizen science into a unique scientific tool. Projects that require enormous processing power and/or involve the manipulation of huge data sets can benefit the most.
It was SETI@home which laid the foundation for the participation of volunteers in scientific research on a big scale. Designed to search for extraterrestrial signals, it instantly captured the imagination of the public. SETI@home uses Internet connected computers to analyse radio signals. 11 years on, it counts over three million users. Since then citizen science has matured, whereas in some projects volunteers assume a more active role by doing real scientific work.
An excellent example of a citizen science project is Galaxy Zoo. More than 250 000 people worldwide have been granted privileged access to amazing images of galaxies. Their mission is to classify them according to their shape. The project was an instant success and it has maintained the interest of the participants since its launch three years ago.
Another successful citizen science project is FoldIt. The project aims to provide scientists with an insight into the way that proteins fold. This is an important topic in medical research. Understanding of protein folding is expected to lead to scientific advances. Here volunteers are asked to fold proteins into the correct shape by playing a 3D videogame!
But could this work be carried out by computers instead of people? For one thing, computer algorithms cannot substitute human intuition. As the scientists of Galaxy Zoo claim, computers could not possibly do the job as the human brain is better at recognizing patterns than even the most advanced computer. Recently, a paper in Nature showed that the volunteers playing FoldIt can outperform the most advanced computer networks.
The advancements in computer technology have given citizen science a real push. Thousands of people across the globe are contributing to humanitarian and environmental projects, help scientists classify galaxies, discover new ways to fold proteins, model how diseases are spreading. Results are published in major scientific journals.
Now a set of new initiatives attempt to put citizen science in the mainstream. The Citizen Science Alliance aims to provide a portal for citizen science projects by building on the success and experience of Galaxy Zoo.
The Citizen Cyberscience Centre supported by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), CERN and the University of Geneva aims to promote citizen science projects and provides training and infrastructure. They aim to get developing countries involved as well.
The Centre organized the first ever Citizen Cyberscience Summit in London on the 2nd and 3rd of September. Dr Francois Grey coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre says that “for the first time we brought together scientists and volunteers to exchange perspectives.” The meeting attracted almost 100 participants and concluded with an intensive brainstorming session. Dr Grey points out “we are now working on a citizen science manifesto, which we envisage it will be used as a reference by anyone who considers building a citizen science project. ” The manifesto will become available in a few weeks.
There is no doubt, these are exciting times for citizen science.
Featured image credit: Magdanatka via Shutterstock
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