Science Of...

Citizen Science Puts You On The Research Team

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Some science requires expert training and an experienced eye. But when the science requires large numbers of data points, it can use all the helping hands it can get. That's where citizen science comes in handy. It lets people from all walks of life help advance scientific discovery, sometimes right from their computers.

Ask Not What Science Can Do For You...

Sometimes, the question scientists ask requires a lot of data, whether that's over a long period of time, a large area, or just through lots of repeated trials. Environmental science is an especially big area where citizen science can be helpful. For example, volunteers for the Communicating Climate Change Citizen Science initiative in Columbia, South Carolina watch and record the numbers and migration patterns of monarch butterflies, compiling data that scientists will eventually use to figure out how climate change is affecting butterfly populations.

But plants and animals aren't the only things regular people can observe in the name of science. In October 2016, citizen scientists helped NASA discover a circumstellar disk—that is, a disk of gas and dust that surrounds a star, one of the most common places to find exoplanets—that turned out to be the oldest in the known universe. And a 2016 study published in Nature about a computer game called FoldIt that invited regular people to experiment with folding proteins found that experienced gamers were even better at it than trained crystallographers.

Isn't Science Best Left To Scientists?

Right about now, you might be noticing that there's a lot of talk about the quantity of the data, but not a lot about quality. Other people have wondered the same thing: are the discoveries made through collaborations with regular people really reliable? Caren Cooper, author of the aptly named Citizen Science, gives a vehement yes: "Citizen science volunteers have repeatedly proven to be reliable, careful, and enthusiastic (and probably better than your novice undergraduate intern)." Numerous studies have set out to answer the question, and time and time again they've found citizen science to be as reliable, and sometimes better, than the kind performed by trained researchers.

If you're eager to try your hand at citizen science, check out Citizen Science Central at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, NASA's DiskDetective.org, and Citizen Science Center's list of computer games. Happy researching!

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Editors' Picks: Our Favorite Videos About Citizen Science

The Awesome Power Of Citizen Science

It lets your average Jane or Joe get involved with the science they already love.

Share the knowledge!

Citizen Science at Cornell University

Find out how the Cornell Lab of Ornithology gets help from people like you and me.

Citizen Scientists Discover Yellow Balls In Space

They stumbled on an entirely new class of celestial bodies.

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