As part of Blueprint 2020, we need to re-think how we deliver public science in the Digital Age. This second in a series on GovScience 4.0 examines the potential role of citizen scientists.
At 9:43 on the morning of May 17, 2013, a magnitude 5.2 earthquake struck the Ottawa valley. A citizen could go to the Did You Feel It? website run by Natural Resources Canada and fill out a questionnaire regarding the severity of the shaking and damage observed. The submission was combined with 4,271 other such reports filed by citizens in response to the quake to automatically generate a map. Federal scientists use such information to help assess how various locales may respond to future earthquakes.
This is just one example of a growing trend toward citizen science. Also known as crowdsourced science (Howe 2008) or networked science (Nielsen 2012), Wikipedia describes citizen science as: “Scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, often by crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Formally, citizen science has been defined as ‘the systematic collection and analysis of data, development of technology, testing of natural phenomena, and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis’.”
Prior to the late 19th century, a period that saw the professionalization of science, most scientific activity had been undertaken by amateurs, in the sense that science was not their primary vocation. Amateurs continued to contribute to the advancement of science throughout the 20th century, particularly in observational sciences like astronomy and field biology, but were increasingly overshadowed by the rise of big science that required large facilities staffed by professional research teams.
With the rise of Web 2.0 and social technologies, however, we are witnessing a renaissance in citizen science. This more open network approach to conducting science is consistent with the broader shift to GovScience 4.0 (see the March issue of Canadian Government Executive ). Again, Wikipedia conveys this aspect of citizen science: “Citizen science may be performed by individuals, teams, or networks of volunteers. Citizen scientists often partner with professional scientists to achieve common goals. Large volunteer networks often allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means.”
Citizen science is also gaining popularity through “gamification” or the application of game environments to the solution of real-world problems. Applying the characteristics of a game can make tackling a scientific problem more appealing and engaging, especially for those without a scientific background. Perhaps the most famous example of the marriage of social gaming and citizen science is Foldit, an online video game about protein folding. According to McGonigal (2011): “In the game, players manipulate proteins in a 3D virtual environment that one reviewer describes as ‘a twenty-first-century version of Tetris, with multi-colored geometric snakes filling the screen.’ The geometric snakes represent all the different building blocks of a protein, the amino acid chains that connect and fold up into incredibly complex patterns in order to perform different biological tasks in the body. In Foldit, the player’s goal is to learn what kinds of patterns are the most stable and successful for doing different jobs, by taking an unfolded protein and folding it up in to the right shape.”
McGonigal notes that, “within 18 months of its release, the game had attracted a registered community of more than 112,700 players – most of whom, according to researchers, had little to no previous experience in the field of protein folding” (emphasis added).
Despite their amateur status, the gamers consistently outperform supercomputers running the most sophisticated protein-folding algorithms. As one of Foldit’s lead researchers has said, “We’re hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it’s done by.”
The examples provided here suggest that citizen science may have limited scope. In particular, it seems well-suited to observational fields that benefit from having highly distributed observers that don’t require excessive training to make accurate and useful observations. And no one would suggest that citizen scientists could have discovered the Higgs boson or that amateurs should be manipulating the research reactor at Chalk River.
However, a large part of government science consists of the type of scientific activities such as surveillance, monitoring and data gathering that could potentially benefit from citizen science. Well-designed smartphone “apps” or applications in combination with open government datasets offer exciting opportunities.
We need to think more creatively about what aspects of our current federal S&T efforts could be opened up to citizen participation. This would allow the government to embrace new ways of delivering benefits to Canadians. In addition, by leveraging the scientific interests of citizens, particularly young Canadians, citizen science can help foster a science culture in Canada, a stated objective of the federal S&T strategy.