April Is Global Citizen Science Month
April 2021 is Global Citizen Science Month! It’s an opportunity for everyday citizens to get involved in scientific research—and for working scientists to communicate with the public about their projects across a wide range of disciplines.
The event is run by SciStarter.org, along with Arizona State University and the National Library of Medicine. This year’s projects include Globe at Night, which will monitor light pollution in the night sky, and Flu Near You, a crowd-sourced flu-tracking project.
Participants can choose from both in-person and virtual events, as well as a 30-minute tutorial available in English and Spanish. Science professionals and educators can also attend CitSciVirtual, an online event that will take place in May and feature workshops on youth engagement, funding opportunities, anti-racism in science, and more.
What Is Citizen Science?
Citizen science can refer to any kind of scientific project that involves the participation of non-professionals to perform experiments, crowdsource data, or even to solve puzzles—often using everyday tools such as smartphones or mobile monitoring devices.
According to PollutionProbe, a non-profit based in the Great Lakes Region, the “origins [of citizen science] date back thousands of years, with some of the earliest examples organized around the monitoring and recording of insect, bird, and animal sightings.”
Citizen scientists range from students participating in educational programs, to retirees volunteering with a local community group, and even to gamers helping to unlock the building blocks of life online. Many citizen scientists don’t have any formal training in science—just a passion for nature or a desire to learn more about the world.
For professional scientists, these projects are a way to promote scientific literacy and collect more data than they could otherwise acquire on their own.
From Antwerp to the Arctic
Access to low-cost technology is making it possible for scientists to enlist the public in their research to a greater degree than ever before. A recent citizen science project in Antwerp, Belgium involved 20,000 participants who installed air quality monitors outside their buildings to identify concentrations of nitrogen dioxide traffic exhaust.
Interest in these kinds of community-based projects has been growing in recent years. According to StatNews, “Public dissemination and consumption of scientific information appears to be at an all-time high, fueling interest in participating in scientific research and discovery that was growing even before the pandemic.”
But citizen science isn’t all about crowdsourced data. A big component is science education. That’s why two women, Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby, decided to spend over 16 months in a cabin in Svalbard, Norway. Although neither of them are professional scientists (they met through the Adventure Travel Trade Association), they wanted to put their firsthand knowledge of the Arctic to good use.
Their Hearts in the Ice project includes several citizen-science tasks, such as taking snow samples, observing polar bears, and flying pre-programmed drones—all while sharing their experience with students around the world via videolink.
Citizen Science in Pharma and Biotech
Not all citizen-science projects require participants to leave their home. In fact, some of the most forward-thinking initiatives take place entirely online. One way that biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have been incorporating citizen science is through science discovery games (SDGs). These games use the collective intelligence of the crowd to tackle complex problems that algorithms can’t handle.
One of the earliest SDG games was Foldit, which used puzzles to determine 3D protein structures. According to Nature Biotechnology, “This project helped refine a retroviral protease structure and later discovered novel protein folds.”
Whereas Foldit was designed for chemistry and biology students with some scientific knowledge, other games have become accessible to the general public. Phylo, for example, asks participants to “solve a puzzle and help genetic disease research” through a tile-matching game, while EteRNA invites users to take the “OpenCRISPR Challenge.”
A recent game, OpenVaccine, allows citizens to contribute to mRNA vaccine research, even if they don’t have any previous scientific knowledge. Players can learn more about genetics, while providing scientists with the brainpower they need to solve complex puzzles. Findings are published in major scientific journals.
SDGs are even making their way into more mainstream video games. The Borderlands first-person action game includes a tile-matching game with puzzles that are “made of fragments of microbial 16S ribosomal RNA gene sequences.” The result is an unconventional collaboration between video gamers and the American Gut Project, the “world’s largest citizen science microbiome project.”
How to Get Involved in Citizen Science
Global Citizen Science Month is a great time for participants to get involved, but there are plenty of activities happening year-round, with dozens of organizations supporting these initiatives, from National Geographic to the Smithsonian Institution.
For parents and educators, SciStarter offers a Field Guide to Citizen Science with an introduction to kid-friendly activities like “mapping trees, counting birds, and identifying mushrooms.” Even the U.S. government has released its own Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, and has over 35 agencies collaborating on projects to “enhance scientific research” and “provide hands-on STEM learning.”
Another good starting point is Zooniverse—a “platform for people-powered research,” where volunteers can take part in activities such as labeling frog songs or categorizing galaxies by shape. Scientists can use the platform to launch a project of their own.
As we celebrate Global Citizen Science Month, it’s important to remember that citizen science is a two-way street. While these kinds of projects are a great way to increase scientific literacy, they can also lead to mistrust if participants feel like they’re being exploited for their labor or data. Whether it’s a sense of discovery, a deeper connection to nature, or the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, the best citizen science projects provide benefits to everyone involved.