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Next Science Cafe: Citizen science is an important part of research

  • The “Bash the Bug” program on Zooniverse has “citizen scientists” examine tuberculosis samples, seeking information about antibiotic resistance. Courtesy of Zooniverse



Monitor staff
Tuesday, June 20, 2017

You’re reading this, which means you enjoy science, but do you perform science?

Some of you do, of course. Some of you are post-docs, reading Granite Geek while stealing leftover doughnuts from morning lectures, or engineers trying not to laugh too loudly at my doofus goof-ups, or government scientists grateful for something in the newspaper that doesn’t discuss cutting their budget.

But most of us sit on the sidelines and watch. Which is fine – in fact, the original title of this column was Science from the Sidelines – but occasionally we want to do a bit more.

Enter “citizen science,” the internet-enabled system that started as a geeky fad but has grown into a part of modern research, which is why we’re talking it up at Science Cafe Concord tonight. (As always, 6 p.m. at The Draft Sport Bar, 67 S. Main St. – free, of course.)

Citizen science has become so established that you can find published research analyzing its effectiveness in different scenarios to help scientists design it as part of their work. These days, using enthusiastic amateurs in your science is almost as routine as using E. coli in a petri dish.

The term is a catch-all phrase for programs that let volunteers perform tasks under very loose supervision to help organized scientific research. The idea has been around a very long time: The Audubon Society started the Christmas Bird Count, in which people record the number and species of birds they see over a few days in the holidays, clear back in 1901.

That bird count has provided a valuable window into changes in bird populations over time, but until a decade or two ago it was fairly limited in size because of the logistical complexity of organizing lots of people and gathering their printed information.

No longer. The Christmas Bird Count has taken off with the advent of the smartphone, which gives everybody a handheld data-collection and data-distribution device. A staggering 2,100 species were counted around the world during the 2015-16 winter count, which is one-fifth the total number of bird species known to exist. That’s compared to the 90 species that were counted back in 1901.

This success has spurred a number of similar projects, in which scientists or organizations allow lots of amateurs to gather population data about many other species. Just in New Hampshire you can count amphibians (Frog Watch) and insects (Dragonfly Watch) and fish (fish ladder monitoring), among various possibilities.

We’ll have two panelists tonight who oversee such citizen science projects, ready to answer our questions about how they work, who uses the data and how effective they are: Sara Steiner, coordinator of the Volunteer Lake Assessment Program with N.H. Department of Environmental Services, and Malin Clyde, UNH Cooperative Extension Stewardship Network director.

The success of wildlife-oriented programs has prompted the expansion of the citizen-science model to other fields. Aside from just moderating, I will be acting as a pseudo-panelist and talking about some of them.

Yes, I love to hear myself talk, but I have real information – honest!

I have long participated in the Community Collaborative Rain Hail Snow Network, a crowdsourced rainfall program that has become part of the nation’s forecasting system for weather, climate and even some emergency response systems. I’ve also participated in online-only programs organized under a system called Zooniverse, where researchers put data online and ask online volunteers to help them quantify or categorize it.

Zooniverse projects are incredibly diverse.

For example, there’s Old Weather, where volunteers type up handwritten logs from 19th-century sailing vessels so researchers can scan and collate the data for such things as climate records or wartime history.

Or there’s Bash the Bug, which is tackling antibiotic-resistance. Volunteers assess the effect of different antibiotics on samples of tuberculosis bacteria to help quantify the result of different genetic variations.

Or there’s Supernova Hunters, in which you can pore through nightly data from the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System to spot, as you might expect from the title, the exploding stars known as supernovas.

Or, if you need a dose of the arts, there’s Shakespeare’s World, where people transcribe handwritten documents from Shakespeare’s contemporaries to “help us understand his life and times.” That project has a secondary benefit for lexicography geeks: “you’ll find words that have yet to be recorded in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, and which will eventually be added to this important resource.”

So whether you want to find dragonflies or decipher sentences written with a goose-quill pen, there are options. Which is why you should show up Tuesday and help us talk about it.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)