Get Involved: Citizen Science!
Picture a scientist. You are probably envisioning someone wearing a fancy white lab coat, standing in a high-tech lab or an exotic field location, and using complicated equipment. Many of us share this image of scientists due to their stereotypical representation in media and society. They are frequently depicted as elite and inaccessible: people who undergo rigorous training and endure years of higher education to emerge transformed as knowledgeable officials conducting complex experiments in sterile environments. Scientists appear to be detached from normal life.
But scientists are not actually that different from regular people. They come in many forms, and despite our preconceived notion of what it means to be a scientist, science is more accessible than you might think. In challenge to the myth of the white lab coat, science is more open to everyone than ever before. Through the ease of communication and data sharing of modern technology, the capacity for people from all walks of life to engage with science is greater than ever before.
Citizen science uses these technological advancements to harness the power of the public. It allows individuals non-traditionally trained in science to make meaningful contributions to experiments and research projects. Though participants sometimes work on-site, citizen science volunteers typically engage with the scientific community online. People from every background, location, and education level can help with data collection, translation, and interpretation while also learning and expanding their own horizons.
The positive impacts of citizen science are already emerging on a global scale. Take, for instance, the rapidly growing citizen science platform iNaturalist. On this site, users simply upload a photo or audio observation of any organism: plant, animal, fungus, and more. An automated system then suggests a species identification based on the uploaded media and its GPS location. Next, members of the community —regular people and formal scientists alike— refine or confirm the identification to create a piece of research grade data.
iNaturalist allows a large number of people to record observations anywhere, anytime. The huge volume of data created with this platform and others like it is one of the perks of citizen science. Scientists can leverage this fleet of motivated volunteers as their eyes and ears on the natural world. The multitude of observations recorded have yielded an impressive reservoir of data, as well as exciting sightings of rare species. For example, Californian beachgoers used iNaturalist to record the first ever Hoodwinker Sunfish sighted in North America in 2019. The previous year, someone uploaded the first ever photograph of a Colombian Weasel, which they had spotted in their bathroom.
Beyond incredible observations like these, iNaturalist also allows users to create ‘projects’ or collections of observations for a specific location. This capability has been used for everything from large-scale conservation projects, such as the Ohio Bee Atlas, to fun, environmental education-oriented community competitions, such as the City Nature Challenge (Durham, NC was a participant in 2020 and 2021!). Through these many outlets, everyday people can get involved with the world around them and with the scientific community even with no prior knowledge. Citizen science presents the exciting potential to revolutionize education, conservation, and outreach alike —all while expanding the definition of what it means to be a scientist.
Birdwatching and frog photography not your thing? No worries! There are a multitude of citizen science opportunities available on almost any topic you can think of. Check out some citizen science hubs below or discover something on your own. Many museums, government agencies, and nonprofits offer virtual volunteering and citizen science opportunities. Find a project that fits your passions and join the worldwide community of citizen scientists!