Weekly news: Citizen science is still underexploited

WE’VE all been hearing a lot about ‘citizen science’over the last few years, and there is no doubt that this phenomenon is here to stay. We see volunteers taking part in projects as diverse as counting butterflies in urban parks and studying images of distant galaxies via their computers.

In cases like those, motivated people are playing an important part in scientific data collection and analysis, making it possible for professional scientists to boost their research to new levels but without incurring much additional cost.

The movement is hardly a new thing, as science has always been performed by amateurs and professionals alike, but its recent boost is the result of two separate developments.

One is the ubiquity of personal computers, making it a simple matter for anybody at home to lend their processor or eyeballs to the analysis of a dataset gathered anywhere on the planet. Despite the developments in image processing algorithms, it seems the human eyeball is still the most effective sensor available for pattern recognition and other subtle tasks.

The second development driving citizen science forward is the current volunteer culture, promoted by politicians like the current UK prime minister and others determined to squeeze spending. Whatever you might think of any particular politician, or the policies they promote, the simple truth is that many valuable scientific research projects could not happen without the legions of willing volunteers they are able to recruit.

A major review of citizen science projects and practices has been published today, and makes very interesting reading for anybody involved in our industry. This practical guide on how to develop, implement, and evaluate citizen science projects is published by the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Natural History Museum, London. It sets out to pass on lessons learned from previous projects so that future citizen science schemes can get maximum value from their volunteers.

Among other things, it points out that citizen science is cheap but not free, that the data collected can be excellent but that not all researchers may appreciate that, and that there is potential to make more use of citizen science in interesting and worthwhile projects in future.

The report can be freely downloaded from http://www.ceh.ac.uk/news/news_archive/cspublications.html

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Russ Swan

editor, LabHomepage.com




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