2009: Top Citizen Science Stories

2009 was a thrilling year for citizen scientists (you know, those “average citizens” who volunteer to lend their brains to science). It wasn’t that long ago, when as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I’d inevitably be met with blank stares when I uttered the words “citizen science.” But this year, we witnessed a rising tide and 2010 will surely bring with it tidal waves of citizen science breakthroughs.

A recent report to the National Science Foundation concluded: “The number of published scientific papers based on citizen-collected data is increasing each year. Many more projects could be created that will appeal to the increasing numbers of amateur naturalists and stargazers who are interested in lending their brains to science.” And indeed, hundreds, if not thousands, of new citizen science projects are now underway.

In mid-January, my partner (Michael Gold) and I, with support from  Science House will run a soft launch of ScienceForCitizens.net, the Craigslist meets Match.com in the realm of citizen science. A one-stop shop for learning about and contributing to the massive variety of existing projects out there. Opportunities for collaborations exist, just drop me a line at darlene@sciencecheerleader.com if you’re interested.

First, a nod to the giants whose shoulders we (citizen science advocates) stand upon:

  • Cornell University has some of the longest running citizen science projects, primarily in the field of ornithology. Thanks to Rick Bonney and his tireless team, Cornell continues to dominate the field. See Citizen Science Central.
  • Terrie Miller launched her blog way before most of us even knew what a “blog” was. She practices what she preaches and has taken the lead in bringing permaculture to the masses.
  • Yale, Oxford and NASA’s Galaxy Zoo project amassed hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers to sort through images of the galaxies. Wisely, they’ve partnered with other space science projects through which massive amounts of data are collected, and recently launched the Citizen Science Alliance as a mechanism to share and decipher gold mines of information.
  • The Society of Amateur Scientist, 15 years old and counting, has a loyal membership of innovative problem solvers. SAS is led by Dr. Shawn Carlson and uber amateur scientist Forrest Mimms.

2009 wrap up:
Here are but some of the many citizen science news items of 2009:
The NY Academy of Sciences: The Growth of Citizen Science
The New York Times: A New Kind of Big Science
O’Reilly Report: Citizen Science and Urban Sensing
TreeHugger: The Big Deal with Citizen Science
Education.com: Citizen Science benefits to children
Seed Magazine: Creating Citizen Scientists
CNN Citizen Science and Climate Change

Every good idea needs a critic. If additional proof is needed that citizen science is more than just a passing fancy, witness the emergence of the critics. I, for one, value the opinions of critics as important tools to help keep well-intended efforts from becoming (too) manipulated by opportunists. The critics will keep things honest. In fact, you can expect to read some critical articles and posts written by me…shortly! For now, check out  Science is not a democracy and AIG executive pay and the citizen scientist.

2009 Citizen Scientists of Distinction. Our Founding Fathers were the pinnacle representatives of “amateur scientists” or “citizen scientists.” PBS lays out its list of all-time Great Amateurs in Science here.
Today, their spirit lives on in the likes of (previously mentioned) Shawn Carlson and Forrest Mimms,  as well as through these lesser known citizen scientists, who made the headlines in 2009: (Special thanks to @scicheer Twitter followers for weighing in with your favorites.)

  • Six-year-old Alyson Yates and her mom, Kate, discovered a rare nine-spotted ladybug while taking part in Cornell University’s Lost Ladybug citizen science project. This native species had been taken over by the Asian imported seven-spotted bugs, in the 1970s. Researchers at Cornell are breeding the native species and hope to introduce them back to the land that was once their own.
  • By running DNA tests, teenagers in NYC found a new breed of cockroach and discovered food labels lie. Their adventures are wrapped in this NPR piece about the bubbling DIY biology movement.

And, interesting factoid for you Batman fans, it turns out Cat Woman was once inspired by an amateur scientist who studied snowflakes (character’s based on the real amateur scientist who studied snowflakes).

Last but not least, here’s a shout out to the world’s greatest citizen science reporters, Dr. John Ohab Sarah Chobot–soon to be a Ph.D.!–John Collier and our skeptical cheerleader, Occam’s Razor, of course. Thank you for enlightening and inspiring thousands of readers.

Happy 2010! Now go get your hands dirty with science!

-Darlene