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No PhD needed: everyone’s a scientist!

Citizen science, or the public’s involvement in scientific research, is booming and becoming more ambitious and more networked.

But what is citizen science exactly?

In short, citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Scientists create community programmes to gather and capture more widely spread data without additional funding. Many scientists work with already established communities, such as birdwatchers and weather bugs, to expand studies and databases. Large volunteer networks often allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time-consuming to accomplish through other means. A large number of citizens are also donating thinking time to help speed up meta-analyses or assess images in ways that algorithms cannot yet match. Projects involve citizens with a wide range of expertise; from children in their own backyards to members of high-school science clubs to amateur astronomers with sophisticated home equipment.

How can I get involved?

Subjects are incredibly varied, ranging from monitoring pollution to installing Geiger counters in potentially radioactive habitable zones to classifying galaxies. In the Netherlands, one ongoing project by the University of Leiden aims to track the amount of plastic spotted in canals and rivers throughout the country, in an effort to reduce plastic pollution of its waterways.

Another project, led by Naturalis and the team of Barbara Gravendeel, aims to record whether dandelions in the city open earlier and close later than dandelions in nature, and whether there is a connection with where they grow.

Citizen science can of course involve your family, but also your cherished pup! This howling study, led by a team at Harvard-Tufts, wants to understand whether dogs are able to control their voice pitch when howling along to certain sounds. All you have to provide are videos of your dog howling along to the sound tracks!

How long has citizen science been around?

Although the term ‘citizen science’ was only coined relatively recently in the 1990’s, people have been invested and contributing to science for centuries. In ancient China for example, migratory locusts were frequently destroying harvests, and residents have been tracking outbreaks for almost 2000 years. Citizen science brings many opportunities, not only for scientists that run these complex projects and require data, but also for non-professional scientists who wish to contribute and learn about new subjects.

One goal of citizen science in general is to increase participation in research and to build stronger connections between citizens and scientists. This could not be more important at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching our global understanding of immunology and vaccine development, and requires the general public and politicians to understand complex scientific data and trust the quality of the information provided. Many citizen science projects also focus on providing better quality of life for its citizens, such as monitoring air pollution in cities and how buildings can trap pollution in ‘pollution canyons’ in cities.

Importance of citizen science projects and regulations

Importantly, governmental agencies are realising the potential of citizen science projects and have started to incorporate them into their routine work, such as the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), and the US and Scottish environmental protection agencies. The European commission has also specifically earmarked a range of funding opportunities for citizen science projects within its €80-billion Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Although citizen science projects are becoming increasingly popular, academics fear that the sheer number of projects available to the public is overwhelming and ultimately leads to decreases in participation in long-running projects such as the Big Garden Birdwatch project in the UK. There are also challenges related to ethics and data use. As an example, a project in Kenya aims to map poaching incidents, wildlife encounters and fencings, which can all be harmful to animals. However, the data could potentially be used for far more nefarious purposes and could provide poachers with exact locations of animal sightings.

Our favourite citizen science projects

If you feel like getting involved, or want to learn about a new topic, here are a few of our favourites:

One of the world’s most popular nature apps

Interested in space? Check these projects out!

Help classify galaxies according to shape

Look for interstellar particles

Help gather data about light pollution by recording night sky brightness observations

Measure artificial light at night and send your results to light pollution researchers worldwide:

Citizen science projects in the Netherlands

How much plastic can you spot in the canals?

Help record opening and closing times of dandelions in your area:

Keep an eye out for birds in your garden!

Get your pets involved!

How does your dog's howl change with different sounds? Send in your videos!

Enroll your pets in science projects too and learn about their behaviour:

Dog behaviour

Cat behaviour

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