Monday November 24, 2014

Citizen science: New name, old practice


Last week, a fascinating project came to my attention involving ants, cookies and “citizen science.”

Basically, researchers at North Carolina State University wanted to catalogue the diversity of ants across the United States, how they may be evolving in urban environments and how exotic invasive species are spreading.

They developed a protocol for collecting samples that involved Pecan Sandies cookies, sealable plastic bags and enlisted the help of more than a thousand ordinary people across all 50 states to collect samples and ship them to the university.

The project, dubbed School of Ants collected seven exotic species and 107 native species.

Dr. Amy Savage, one of the co-lead authors of the study said it wasn’t just about the ants, though, “... we also wanted to launch a citizen science project that both increased the public’s ecological literacy and addressed criticisms that public involvement made citizen science data unreliable.

Citizen science is, in fact, simply a new term for a very old practice. Some of the greatest historical contributors to  science, including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin were amateurs.

Some fields of study, such as ornithology and astronomy have long  benefited from the contribution of nature lovers.

For example, the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count has been going on since 1900 providing insight for professional researchers on migratory patterns and range expansion or retraction.

Backyard astronomers have discovered planets, comets, supernovae, galaxies and unusual features on the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn. John Dobson, who just died this year at the age of 99 revolutionized reflecting telescopes.

Before satellites, weather forecasting relied on observations, often by regular citizens and, in turn, led to the development of early meteorological models.

There is also significant scientific data that has come as an offshoot of commerce. Prospectors for precious metals and other natural resources seeking their own fortunes did not necessarily set out to be geologists, but have contributed greatly to the understanding of Earth’s history.

Amateur fossil hunters have also made some astounding fossil discoveries.

While citizen science is a long-standing tradition, modern technology has certainly increased the scope.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and other projects use volunteers to increase their computing power using distributed networks of home computers.

The role of non-professionals in science is bound to increase, particularly in the realm of data collection if studies such as the School of Ants successfully find ways to ensure the reliability of citizen-collected data.

It is easy to see how the methodology could result in skewed results.

It is even easier to see how it could be abused to, for example, support dubious medical claims.

As with all scientific  endeavours vigilance and verification are essential to the realm of citizen science.



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