How to Be a Great Citizen Scientist
So you’ve started a citizen science project (or thought about it)? Amazing! It’s the perfect time to pick up a science project if you’re one of the millions of people stuck at home, looking for something to do. You will learn something new and gain a sense of purpose from tangibly contributing to the front lines of scientific understanding of the world around us. Scientists can learn so much more when curious volunteers scattered all over the world are collecting data. With the help of the public, scientists can study everything from the bees and butterflies in my backyard in Florida, to categorizing the shape of galaxies.
Famously, projects like iNaturalist have enlisted the public to document over 36 million wildlife observations, covering more than 260,000 different species worldwide. Other projects like Crowd the Tap from Dr. Caren Cooper’s lab at North Carolina State University, only asks users to collect data one time to study water and infrastructure quality across the United States. Scientists from every discipline lean on public participation to index details about our environment.
“A good public science project works well with lots of data,” said Dr. Nash Turley, who is launching his first citizen project, Lawn to Wildflowers, during the Covid-19 shutdown. His app gives users basic training on identifying species of pollinators and guides them on how to plant gardens that support pollinator species. “You can do something very specialized and specific, but if only you and two other people can do it, then you’re obviously very limited.”
When you join a public science project, expect the focus to be specific and straightforward. The creators of citizen science projects want to involve people from as many backgrounds as possible to turn over every rock. “There’s very simple ways that people can contribute just based on their local knowledge and experience,” says Dr. Cooper. If you’ve thought about contributing to a public science project, you already have what it takes. The next step is being the best citizen scientist you can be, here’s how:
Pick a Project That Interests You
This one may sound simple, but it gets at the heart of public science. Public science is a volunteer system that collects data for scientists, and the scientists involve the public in the experiment by guiding and teaching them. Learning is a benefit of the social contract, so make sure you’re getting the most out of it. “A great participant in our project is someone that’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool! I’m going to create a plot.’ Then they give us the data about the plot they created.” says Dr. Nash Turley.
Additionally, if you are not genuinely interested in the topic of a public science project, your participation is likely to taper off. Start strong with high enthusiasm for the subject of your science project.
Does Consistency or frequency make a difference?
Some public science projects, like Crowd the Tap, only ask the public to submit one set of questions about their pipes, but most public science projects benefit the more data you contribute. For example, Lawn to Wildflowers can study how pollinator populations change if information is submitted in the same place over time. Consistent submissions help scientists answer more complex questions, like how the addition of wildflower habitat space impacts your neighborhood pollinators.
The world is stopped right now for Covid-19, and you may have time for a science project where you did not before. Take advantage of that free time, and by the time quarantine ends, you’ll have more familiarity with your project, and it will be easier to fit into your life.
Finally, let’s address the fear of not being an expert scientist. The creators of citizen science projects anticipated that “public scientists” do not have specialized training, and aim to make the learning and participation as easy as possible. However, you’ll still have questions. You wanted to be a scientist…
Many public science projects have a built feature where you can send a scientist who is working on the project a request for backup. In that case, you’ve done the leg work of collecting data, and they will make sure the data is processed correctly. Alternatively, every public science project has an email address, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. Reach out with your quick question. I guarantee the scientist on the other side will be blushing about the interest you’re taking. The cherry on top is that you’ll get some one-on-one insight from an expert.