Will the Next Great Scientific Discovery Be Made by Amateurs?

There are more options than ever to get involved, and your input can help solve big problems in science

"Steve" the aurora was discovered by amateur skywatchers, who are helping scientists learn more about this atmospheric phenomenon. (Catalin Tapardel)

In 2016, a bright purple ribbon glowed over Alberta, Canada, and the scientists who study aurora borealis—the northern lights—didn’t even know it was there. Reports started to come in from night-sky watchers, enthusiasts with cameras and the skills to document the aurora, affectionately named Steve, which was unusually far south for an aurora. These hobbyists had access to the scientists—and a way to share their experiences and data, thanks to Aurorasaurus, a crowdsourced aurora-reporting tool built by a collaboration including members of NASA, Penn State University, a university-industry collaboration called The New Mexico Consortium, and Science Education Solutions a small R&D company that works with science education curricula and programs.

“Their cameras and knowledge were in a location where we hadn’t had a lot of measurements,” says Liz MacDonald, a program scientist at NASA who also works on the Aurorasaurus project. “Their photos revealed something that we hadn’t understood well, and have really contributed to basically better understanding of the way the aurora works.” Scientists paired the photos with satellite observations, and are using the results to try to determine the cause of this unique aurora.

“Technologies that we have now accessible to us—smartphones and the internet—all of these things allow us to be better connected where observations and human computing power can contribute to big problems.”

The aurora hunters who used Aurorasaurus are a shining example of the growing influence of citizen scientists who, enabled by computing power, apps, and increasing acceptance from researchers, are contributing directly to scientific research.

Citizen science is the subject of a panel MacDonald is hosting this week at Future Con in Washington, DC, a three-day science, technology and entertainment celebration inside Awesome Con June 16-18. Featuring also Kristen Weaver, an outreach specialist at NASA who is deputy coordinator of GLOBE Observer, a citizen science program that tracks all sorts of data about the natural world, Sophia Liu, an innovation specialist at the US Geological Survey who is also co-chair of the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, and Jessica Rosenberg, an astronomer who has worked extensively with citizen science projects, the panel will address some of the successful examples of collaboration between scientists and amateur scientists, as well as offer tips on how to get involved.

Centuries ago, all scientists were citizen scientists, either funded by patrons or on their own. It was with the advent of the modern university system that the field started to require degrees, points out Shane Larson, a research associate professor at Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics and an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. Larson is a co-investigator on Gravity Spy, a project that asks volunteers to distinguish gravitational waves from glitches in data provided by laser interferometers, which use lasers to measure the stretching of space by gravity, but he isn’t on the Future Con panel.

But the balance is again tipping toward including amateurs in the practice of science. The practice of crowdsourcing data collection goes back nearly as far as modern science. Sometimes it involves gathering data, other times it’s about data analysis. Some of the better examples include the Christmas Bird Count, in which birdwatchers spend a day in December tallying species, and the 1975 discovery of monarch butterfly migration routes, which relied on amateurs tagging butterflies and scientists finding them in their wintering grounds. More recently, as computers have evolved, scientists have developed tools to use spare processing power to parse data, such as SETI@home, which uses a program downloaded to private PCs to analyze radio telescope data for signs of intelligent extraterrestrials. 

It's a shift necessitated by the change in how scientific discovery is done. “Today, the amount of data that we can collect as scientists is far too large for us to analyze in any kind of expedited manner,” says Larson. “The truth is, many of the things we’re trying to understand require enormous amounts of data, and if it takes us a long time to analyze that data we’re never going to arrive at an answer.”  That’s where the public comes in.

Projects like Gravity Spy rely on humans to compare data or images and categorize them in an online survey. For example, in another project, called Galaxy Zoo, participants look at a picture of a galaxy, and determine whether it is shaped like a spiral, a football, or something else.

“Humans can look at an image from a telescope very quickly, and say, that’s a spiral galaxy—they click on ‘spiral’, it classifies it and the goes to the next image,” says Larson. “Teaching a computer to do that is really really hard.”

Gravity Spy and Galaxy Zoo are part of the Zooniverse platform, one of several programs designed to leverage crowdsourced research. Another is SciStarter, which not only hosts projects but also pursues other avenues to bring scientists and citizen scientists together.

That opportunity to interact with scientists who may actually use your data is one of the things that makes participating in these projects compelling, says panelist Kristen Weaver. In an educational setting, it can mean adding real-world impact to work that would otherwise be just an exercise.

“What’s great about citizen science is that it brings that direct, concrete connection to people,” says Weaver. “Everyone can be a scientist, and I think that making that connection between people doing citizen science and the NASA science is just exciting.”

About Nathan Hurst

Nathan Hurst blends a love of storytelling with a passion for science and the outdoors, covering technology, the environment, and much more. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Wired, Outside, Make: and Smithsonian.

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