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You don't have to be a professional scientist to make a contribution to our collective knowledge. Today, we look at several projects that have benefitted from the power of citizen science! Get started at and find thousands of searchable projects that match your location, interests, and skills!

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History of Citizen Science


SETI@home & Galaxy Zoo



Hank: Let’s say you love science. Not a huge stretch, hopefully? You are watching SciShow, after all. Now that we live in the Age of the Internet, you can look up anything that your science-loving heart desires - from how the genomes of bacteria can be used to design experiments, to how planets might move in a hypothetical galaxy. But what makes someone a “professional” scientist, instead of just someone who’s curious about the world?

Usually it has to do with getting paid - paid to test and to learn and to build new things in labs - and publishing research papers. So if you don’t have a college degree, or a job in academia, it may seem like you’re stuck with being a fan of science, without actually being able to do research yourself. But that’s not true! You can help - as a citizen scientist!

Citizen science is a way for your Average Jane to help experts with their research projects - in really hands-on and useful ways - from collecting data, to analyzing them, and sometimes even collaborating to publish papers. It’s like crowdsourced research, where you gain some expertise along the way. Pretty cool! Everybody wins! But it isn’t really a new concept - so let’s look at where the idea of citizen science really comes from, and explore what the power of volunteers can do for science.


A couple centuries ago, science was mostly an informal, collaborative kind of enterprise. Scientists were pretty much people who would think and write about our world to explain why things are the way they are. And most of them were rich enough that they could study science in their free time, since doing science didn’t really provide an income. These gentlemen scientists, as they were sometimes called, formed communities, like academic societies, so they could talk shop with each other.

But starting in the 19th century, science became a full-time career for lots of people, because that’s when money started to become available from governments and schools to do research. Suddenly, in order to be a “professional” scientist - and make a living doing research - you had to distinguish yourself from all the curious hobbyists out there. And when the idea of a professional scientist was born, so too was the idea of the amateur scientist.

Compared to formally-trained scientists, so-called amateurs didn’t earn a lot of respect in their fields and couldn’t really do research and publish work anymore. But in the last couple of decades, things have changed, and now there’s more collaboration between professionals and hobbyists than there used to be. In the mid-1990s, the term citizen scientists was first used to describe people who don’t have formal science training, but who volunteer their time and energy to help with research. And their work can range from large-scale conservation projects, to astronomical surveys, to work that used to be restricted to biology labs.

Some kinds of research are ideal for citizen science, because they don’t require a lot of training - just lots of enthusiasm and lots of patience. These virtues are put to good use in the field of ecology, where citizen scientists can help collect and record data about the natural world. Professional ecologists need this help a lot, because their research often depends on collecting huge datasets, in order to understand how plants and animal populations change over time.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Every year since 1966, around the time of year when birds are gettin’ busy - usually June-ish - a bunch of volunteer birdwatchers in the U.S. and Canada get together and do what they love to do - watch birds. Specifically, they count the species of birds that they see and hear along pre-chosen roadside survey routes. Everyone starts half an hour before their local sunrise, and they drive along a 24.5-mile stretch of road, stopping every half-mile to count birds for 3 minutes.

After they’re done with the survey, each volunteer enters his or her data into an online archive. These data are then analyzed by education programs and government agencies, to study population trends for hundreds of bird species across the whole continent. This work by citizen scientists helps researchers learn about patterns in migration and breeding, and helps track the effects of things like chemical contaminants or habitat changes on bird populations. Without the collective brain-power and know-how of these amateurs, these data would take a ton of time and money to gather, and we’d know way less about birds than we do now.

But for those of you who prefer to stay indoors, there’s a lot of citizen science work to be done on computers. The easiest way to take part here is just to volunteer some of your computer’s processing power, in what’s known as distributed computing. In fact, it’s so easy that some people might argue that this isn’t even “citizen science” because you don’t really gain any expertise by doing it. But still, the scientists who get the data are psyched to have the help.

For example, for decades, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has been looking for intelligent life in our universe with the help of some volunteer computer power. One of SETI’s methods is using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to listen for radio signals from space. But Arecibo receives a LOT of data. So, instead of using one huge supercomputer to analyze them, a project called SETI@home essentially creates a virtual supercomputer from thousands of volunteers’ machines.

If you have an internet connection and you volunteer for this project, when you’re not using your computer, researchers will be using it to analyze and report data back to their lab. This allows for more, faster data analysis than could be done by the lab alone. And, hey, if they happen to find an alien civilization? You could totally take some of the credit.

But if you want to be a less passive citizen scientist, there are plenty more projects out there for actual humans. Because humans are fundamentally better than computers at some things. Like … finding stuff in pictures. That’s why the online project Galaxy Zoo was started: to enlist human brains - and eyes - to help analyze images taken of the night sky. The project’s original dataset was around a million pictures from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. And its goal was to classify all of the galaxies found in the survey, by their appearance.

So, volunteers are given pictures of galaxies captured during the survey, and are asked to organize them by shape - like ellipsoid, clockwise spiral, counterclockwise spiral, and merging galaxies. Then, astronomers can use their findings to better understand how galaxies form and evolve. The team of astronomers who created the site originally expected that it would take years for volunteers to go through all the data from the Sloan Survey. But, within a single year, users had submitted more than 50 million classifications, with every picture of a galaxy having been verified by multiple people.

There’s no way these images could’ve been analyzed as quickly by a single or even several teams of professional astronomers. And computers just weren’t smart enough to get the job done. Today, Galaxy Zoo continues to cycle through millions of images from telescopes all over the world, and volunteers are still helping to classify new objects in the universe.

Now, humans are also way better than computers at spatial problem solving - looking for patterns and figuring out how things could move or connect. Just like in video games. So scientists have gamified some tricky biological problems and put them on the Internet. Back in 2012, we told you about Foldit, a game that allowed volunteers to predict how different chains of amino acids would fold to make proteins. Eventually, the game’s players figured out how to design modified proteins that scientists could engineer and use in the lab.

Now, there’s EteRNA, which has gamers puzzling over how to make small, single-stranded molecules of RNA fold into certain shapes. Fun? Pretty much. Important? Definitely. The RNA in our cells is involved in lots of important processes - including whether or not we express certain genes. Eventually, scientists want to use RNA to design customized treatments for things like viral infections or even inherited disorders - by targeting our genes and other parts of our cells.

But first, they have to figure out how RNA folds when it interacts with those structures. So researchers from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University, who were inspired by the success of Foldit, developed EteRNA - where players can experiment with, and design, virtual RNA sequences that will fold into certain shapes. Each desired shape is a puzzle, and you solve it by creating an RNA sequence that folds in just the right way.

It’s a fun and challenging game, but what citizen scientists did with it is is really cool. One of the problems that gamers found with EteRNA is that there wasn’t any sort of difficulty rating, when it came to figuring out how hard a certain puzzle might be. And gamers like to know what level they’re on, as it were. Plus, the more experienced gamers wanted to help new players work their way up from the easy puzzles to the hard ones.

So a couple of gamers began to record a bunch of traits that they found made some RNA structures harder to design. For example, it turns out that it’s really difficult to design folded molecules that are symmetrical. And it also turns out that these difficult-to-design structures are harder to synthesize in real-life laboratories. But what’s even more awesome is that these volunteers co-authored a paper based on their research, laying out everything they learned about the challenges of designing RNA molecules that fold into certain structures. Their observations from playing the game wound up in the pages of the Journal of Molecular Biology, and what they learned can now help scientists save time and money when designing RNA structures in the lab.

So: If citizen scientists can go beyond collecting and analyzing data, and start publishing their own research - what could be next? Well, as technology makes us more connected, we can only hope that science will become more accessible to more curious people - and not just be thought of as an endeavor that only experts can understand, or appreciate.

And as the community of citizen scientists grows - in all kinds of fields! - then research projects can become larger and wider-reaching than ever. Maybe, the stigma of being an amateur scientist will start to fade, and more people who have access to knowledge - but not to a PhD - will continue to make valuable contributions to research and technology. So get out there and go do some science. Nothing’s stopping you!

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