Recap: citizen science

See this week’s handout here.

This week’s genomics salon, led by Orlando de Lange (blog, other blog, and  twitter), focused on citizen science. We opened with two main questions: what is citizen science, and why do citizen science? Orlando gave us a few working definitions to get started: citizen science is science that includes amateurs, and it encompasses public participation projects, community labs, and crowdfunding. From the professional scientists’ points of view, citizen science may help in data collection and analysis, fundraising, and education.

The “science” in citizen science
Early on, someone raised the issue of agency, or intentionality, a theme that stayed with us through the rest of the discussion. Many citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo or SETI@home rely on very intentional public gathering or analysis of data. Others like Foldit or eBird incorporate a game-like, competitive aspect, and still others like TestMyBrain bring in citizen scientists themselves as subjects of research. In projects like Games With Purpose, games that serve primarily as entertainment can also be scientifically useful. These projects contrast dramatically with models in the social sciences – for instance, of community-driven forestry, in which a nonspecialist community is actively involved in ecological management. So how important is it that citizen scientists be actively and consciously engaged in research, and how much do current citizen-science projects fulfill these goals?

We got to hear from two actual practitioners of citizen science. Brian Koepnick, a graduate student in the Baker lab, talked about his experiences with Foldit, in which amateurs try to solve protein structures in a gamified environment. He told us about how Foldit players, who typically don’t have biochemistry backgrounds, could often come up with unusual and creative solutions to problems in protein design. Returning to the theme of individuality, we discussed how Foldit players are involved in hypothesis generation (that is, proposing different protein structures), requiring a degree of creativity not always seen in public participation projects.
Max Showalter, a graduate student in oceanology, told us about HiveBio, a local community biology lab. He gave the example of Citizen Salmon, a project in which amateur biologists test samples of salmon from local grocery stores and fish markets to find out where the fish originated. He also commented that community labs can be very different depending on their communities. Some are run mainly by professional scientists who enjoy working on projects in their spare time, and others may feature closer collaborations between scientists and artists. HiveBio runs mainly through classes and a membership model, providing basic equipment and training for community members of all ages to get involved with scientific projects. We discussed how the HiveBio model compares to outreach, and the degree to which community labs tend to play roles in research and education.

Citizen science and the future
We ended by discussing how citizen science might change traditional science. In fields like bioinformatics, competitions along the Kaggle model (for instance, those sponsored by the local nonprofit Sage Bionetworks) have already brought biological problems like cancer prediction to the attention of larger communities of programmers and data scientists. Several people raised concerns, however, about the lack of accountability or oversight on public projects, as well as the importance of expertise in interpreting complex biological datasets. In more equipment-intensive experimental biology fields, there was less optimism about whether citizen science would become a major player; it seems significant that most well-known citizen-science projects are in natural history and astronomy. As a final note, we returned to the term “citizen science” and the distinction it implies between scientist and citizen. There’s more work to be done, it seems, for the democratizing goals of citizen science to be fully realized.

Further resources
I wrote a long article on citizen science in my previous life as a science journalist, so at risk of shameless self-citation, that pretty well sums up most information I have on the subject – see here. That article ran with a(n arbitrary and incomplete) list of citizen scientist projects sampled from various fields – see here. For those in the Seattle area, the local HiveBio community lab is always looking for volunteers – email to get involved.

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