Opening science to public participation, the “citizen science” mode of research, has stimulated a diversity of projects that have led to real innovation and changes in behavior. It has done more than simply enhance existing research. It has also engaged a range of viewpoints that otherwise would have remained below the radar, allowing new people to provide new ideas to solve new problems.
Citizen science is driven mainly by the Internet, cloud computing, smartphones and social media, which enable thousands of scientists—or nonqualified individuals who are often globally dispersed—to participate in the gathering of information and knowledge on a range of scales: Galaxy Zoo (galaxyzoo.org) classifies galaxies, Qcumber (q-cumber.org) allows international users to upload sites of environmental hazards, Project FeederWatch (feederwatch.org) counts birds in North America, and the California Roadkill Observation System (wildlifecrossing.net/California) reports animals killed by vehicles. These programs enable data sampling on a scale finer than could be achieved by any other means.
Ubiquitous mobile devices means that projects need not be restricted to the affluent, literate and educated public. In his work with the ethnic Baka groups in Cameroon, Jerome Lewis of University College London uses simple images to document valuable trees. Methods of citizen science are being opened up to projects in social science to study discrimination and human-rights abuses and to support local peoples in better representing themselves to outsiders.
Besides data gathering, many citizen science projects change our perceptions. The Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count) gives information about population trends. It engages with society and in doing so provides education that can help lead to cultural change. The project was started to replace the tradition of shooting birds on Christmas day.
Ideas can also be readily scaled up. A project started in a classroom can soon become a global initiative. Projects such as Leafsnap (leafsnap.com), which identifies plants, feed information back to individuals, who become part of a two-way process. This collective knowledge may spark other ideas, leading to new ways of doing science, as seen, for instance, in solutions to the protein-folding puzzles put forward by the Foldit project (fold.it/portal). Platforms such as Zooniverse (zooniverse.org) give millions of people access to all manner of collaborations. At CERN near Geneva and other large-scale scientific projects, people with a range of skills have come together to work toward specified goals; through citizen science, this idea can be broadened, be it by classifying newly discovered galaxies or identifying plants. This adds a novel dimension to citizen science, letting the crowd propose new solutions to unsolved problems.
In Iceland, after the 2008 financial crash, city councilors had hard choices to make about how to spend their limited budgets. Better Reykjavik was set up to enable citizens to debate innovative ideas to improve their communities. They crowdsourced potential projects, prioritized them and decided what budgets to allocate. Such successes have opened our eyes to new ways of funding science, such as the Experiment crowdfunding platform (experiment.com). How long will it be before such approaches become de rigueur in scientific funding?
When coupled with big data, citizen science projects will expand yet further. Open platforms will give individuals access to data, models and analyses, so they can pose their own questions and find solutions. This will change the way we teach science in schools and perform research.