The Awesome Power of Citizen Science

Let’s say you love science. Not a huge stretch, hopefully? You are watching
SciShow, after all. Now that we live in the Age of the Internet,
you can look up anything that your science-loving heart desires — from how the genomes of bacteria
can be used to design experiments, to how planets might move in a hypothetical galaxy. But what makes someone a “professional”
scientist, instead of just someone who’s curious about the world? Usually it has to do with getting paid — paid
to test and to learn and to build new things in a lab — and publishing research papers. So if you don’t have a college degree, or
a job in academia, it may seem like you’re stuck with being a fan of science, without
actually being able to do research yourself. But that’s not true! You can help — as a citizen scientist! Citizen science is a way for your Average
Jane to help experts with their research projects — in really hands-on and useful ways — from
collecting data, to analyzing them, and sometimes even collaborating to publish papers. It’s like crowdsourced research, where you
gain some expertise along the way. Pretty cool, right? Everybody wins? But it isn’t really a new concept — so
let’s look at where the idea of citizen science really comes from, and explore what
the power of volunteers can do for science. A couple centuries ago, science was mostly
an informal, collaborative kind of enterprise. Scientists were pretty much people who would
think and write about our world to explain why things are the way they are. And most of them were rich enough that they
could study science in their free time, since doing science didn’t really provide an income. These gentlemen scientists, as they were sometimes
called, formed communities, like academic societies, so they could talk shop with each
other. But starting in the 19th century, science
became a full-time career for lots of people, because that’s when money started to become
available from governments and schools to do research. Suddenly, in order to be a “professional”
scientist — and make a living doing research — you had to distinguish yourself from all
the curious hobbyists out there. And when the idea of a professional scientist
was born, so too was the idea of the amateur scientist. Compared to formally-trained scientists, so-called
amateurs didn’t earn a lot of respect in their fields and couldn’t really do research
and publish work anymore. But in the last couple of decades, things
have changed. And now there’s more collaboration between professionals and hobbyists than there
used to be. In the mid-1990s, the term citizen scientists
was first used to describe people who don’t have formal science training, but who volunteer
their time and energy to help with research. And their work can range from large-scale
conservation projects, to astronomical surveys, to work that used to be restricted to biology
labs. Some kinds of research are ideal for citizen
science, because they don’t require a lot of training — just lots of enthusiasm and
lots of patience. These virtues are put to good use in the field
of ecology, where citizen scientists can help collect and record data about the natural
world. Professional ecologists need this help a lot,
because their research often depends on collecting huge datasets, in order to understand how
plants and animal populations change over time. And that’s exactly what’s happening with
the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Every year since 1966, around the time of
year when birds are gettin’ busy — usually June-ish — a bunch of volunteer birdwatchers
in the U.S. and Canada get together and do what they love to do — watch birds. Specifically, they count the species of birds
that they see and hear along pre-chosen roadside survey routes. Everyone starts half an hour before their
local sunrise, and they drive along a 24.5-mile stretch of road, stopping every half-mile
to count birds for 3 minutes. After they’re done with the survey, each
volunteer enters his or her data into an online archive. These data are then analyzed by education
programs and government agencies, to study population trends for hundreds of bird species
across the whole continent. This work by citizen scientists helps researchers
learn about patterns in migration and breeding, and helps track the effects of things like
chemical contaminants or habitat changes on bird populations. Without the collective brain-power and know-how
of these amateurs, these data would take a ton of time and money to gather, and we’d
know way less about birds than we do now. But for those of you who prefer to stay indoors,
there’s a lot of citizen science work to be done on computers. The easiest way to take part here is just
to volunteer some of your computer’s processing power, in what’s known as distributed computing. In fact, it’s so easy that some people might
argue that this isn’t even “citizen science” — ‘cause you don’t really gain any expertise
by doing it. But still, the scientists who get the data
are psyched to have the help. For example, for decades, the Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence has been looking for intelligent life in our universe with the help of some
volunteer computer power. One of SETI’s methods is using the Arecibo
radio telescope in Puerto Rico to listen for radio signals from space. But Arecibo receives a LOT of data. So, instead of using one huge supercomputer
to analyze them, a project called [email protected] essentially creates a virtual supercomputer
from thousands of volunteers’ machines. If you have an internet connection and you
volunteer for this project, when you’re not using your computer, researchers will
be using it to analyze and report data back to their lab. This allows for more, faster data analysis
than could be done by the lab alone. And, hey, if they happen to find an alien
civilization? You could totally take some of the credit. But if you want to be a less passive citizen
scientist, there are plenty more projects out there for actual humans. Because humans are fundamentally better than
computers at some things. Like … finding stuff in pictures. That’s why the online project Galaxy Zoo
was started: to enlist human brains — and eyes — to help analyze images taken of the
night sky. The project’s original dataset was around
a million pictures from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. And its goal was to classify all of the galaxies
found in the survey, by their appearance. So, volunteers are given pictures of galaxies
captured during the survey, and are asked to organize them by shape — like ellipsoid,
clockwise spiral, counterclockwise spiral, and merging galaxies. Then, astronomers can use their findings to
better understand how galaxies form and evolve. The team of astronomers who created the site
originally expected that it would take years for volunteers to go through all the data
from the Sloan Survey. But, within a single year, users had submitted
more than 50 million classifications, with every picture of a galaxy having been verified
by multiple people. There’s no way these images could’ve been
analyzed as quickly by a single or even several teams of professional astronomers. And computers just weren’t smart enough
to get the job done. Today, Galaxy Zoo continues to cycle through
millions of images from telescopes all over the world, and volunteers are still helping
to classify new objects in the universe. Now, humans are also way better than computers
at spatial problem solving — looking for patterns and figuring out how things could
move or connect. Just like in video games. So scientists have gamified some tricky biological
problems and put them on the Internet. In 2012, we told you about FoldIt, a game
that allowed volunteers to predict how different chains of amino acids would fold to make proteins. Eventually, the game’s players figured out
how to design modified proteins that scientists could engineer and use in the lab. Now, there’s EteRNA, which has gamers puzzling
over how to make small, single-stranded molecules of RNA fold into certain shapes. Fun? Pretty much. Important? Definitely. The RNA in our cells is involved in lots of
important processes — including whether or not we express certain genes. Eventually, scientists want to use RNA to
design customized treatments for things like viral infections or even inherited disorders
— by targeting our genes and other parts of our cells. But first, they have to figure out how RNA
folds when it interacts with those structures. So researchers from Stanford and Carnegie
Mellon University, who were inspired by the success of FoldIt, developed EteRNA — where
players can experiment with, and design, virtual RNA sequences that will fold into certain
shapes. Each desired shape is a puzzle, and you solve
it by creating an RNA sequence that folds in just the right way. It’s a fun and challenging game, but what
citizen scientists did with it is is really cool. One of the problems that gamers found with
EteRNA is that there wasn’t any sort of difficulty rating, when it came to figuring
out how hard a certain puzzle might be. And gamers like to know what level they’re
on, as it were. Plus, the more experienced gamers wanted to
help new players work their way up from the easy puzzles to the hard ones. So a couple of gamers began to record a bunch
of traits that they found made some RNA structures harder to design. For example, it turns out
that it’s really difficult to design folded molecules that are symmetrical. And it also turns out that these difficult-to-design
structures are harder to synthesize in real-life laboratories. But what’s awesome is that these volunteers
co-authored a paper based on their research, laying out everything they learned about the
challenges of designing RNA molecules that fold into certain structures. Their observations from playing the game wound
up in the pages of the Journal of Molecular Biology, and what they learned can now help
scientists save time and money when designing RNA structures in the lab. So: If citizen scientists can go beyond collecting
and analyzing data, and start publishing their own research — what could be next? Well, as technology makes us more connected,
we can only hope that science will become more accessible to more curious people — and
not just be thought of as an endeavor that only experts can understand, or appreciate. And as the community of citizen scientists
grows — in all kinds of fields! — then research projects can become larger and wider-reaching
than ever. Maybe, the stigma of being an amateur scientist
will start to fade, and more people who have access to knowledge — but not to a PhD — will
continue to make valuable contributions to research and technology. So get out there and go do some science. Nothing’s
stopping you! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this
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