The rise of 'citizen astronomers': An era of new discoveries and collaboration

As non-experts become a source of cosmic understanding, their participation generates fresh questions about the connections between science and democracy.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/ Reuters/ File
The 'Milky Way' is seen in the night sky around telescopes and camps of people over rocks in the White Desert north of the Farafra Oasis southwest of Cairo, Egypt on May 16, 2015.

NASA’s JunoCam, which is currently snapping photos from Jupiter’s orbit, is the first outreach camera to travel beyond the asteroid belt. It's also the first time that the average person has a direct line to the far reaches of our solar system.

And the collaboration is paying off. By experimenting with image processing, amateur astronomers have identified new storm systems and other atmospheric conditions on Jupiter – features that the pros missed.

Thanks to the internet, a new era in citizen astronomy is blossoming. Even without a telescope, regular people can now participate in serious scientific research using only a laptop. Some scientists laud this new form of pro-am collaboration and the fresh insights that this kind of research can yield. But as non-experts become increasingly involved in understanding the cosmos, some conceptual questions emerge: As science and democracy mingle, who gets credit for a discovery? Can they really share the same telescope?

For much of human history, astronomy has been the people’s science. In 1781, for example, musician and hobbyist skywatcher William Herschel discovered Uranus with a homemade telescope. Perhaps this is because the night sky, unlike lab equipment, has always been freely accessible.

It makes sense then, that as new technologies and bigger data sets are becoming publicly available, citizen astronomy would grow accordingly. Many government space agencies now provide open access to high-resolution scientific data, and enlist non-experts to help them comb through it all.  

“It used to be that science was something you learned about in school, and it was always done by other people,” Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “But now there’s no reason anybody older than the age of 10 couldn’t start doing publishable science themselves. That’s a big change from when I was a kid.”

Technological advancements aside, the philosophy of science is also changing. In the last two decades, the growth of citizen science has prompted debates about the public’s role in academic research.

“Some of those discussions have focused on getting the public more involved – not just engagement by stimulation, where we try to get people excited about science, but actually involving them in the knowledge production process,” Bruce Lewenstein, a professor of science communication at Cornell University, tells the Monitor in a phone interview.

Those projects bring together two concepts that are sometimes talked about in similar ways: science and democracy. But that's precisely why involving the public in science can be so precarious, Dr. Lewenstein says. 

“If you’re a citizen scientist, what exactly are you a citizen of? Science is at its core a meritocratic organization, while democracy depends on us all being equal,” says Lewenstein, who specializes in the sociology of citizen science. “And yet science and democracy are often equated. Citizen science is built on this idea, of science and democracy being intricately linked.”

In this way, the rise of citizen science has raised new, difficult questions about the ownership of data. In the publish-or-perish world of scientific research, professionals depend on authorship.

“But if citizens don’t get acknowledged, there’s a real sense of expropriation of their work,” Lewenstein says. “Citizens who have done mostly data gathering, should they be authors? In some fields, that type of work earns authorship. In other fields, it doesn’t.”

Challenges aside, professionals and citizen scientists have already proven they can work together. Amateur astronomers from the NASA-sponsored Disk Detective program recently teamed up with veteran astrophysicists to comb through thousands of star systems to identify the oldest known circumstellar disk. This month, their work was published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters – and eight of the credited authors had no academic background in the field.

“Even if we had unlimited funding and the best computers in the world, we still couldn’t do Disk Detective without the Disk Detectives themselves,” Dr. Kuchner, who leads the initiative, tells the Monitor. “It doesn’t work without the human brains connected to it.”

Non-professionals offer a different kind of perspective on astronomy, Kuchner says. They may notice subtle details that seasoned experts tend to overlook or dismiss as mundane. And they do so with “vast energy and intellect.”

Hugo Durantini-Luca, one of the credited authors, works as a computer technician in Cordoba, Argentina. When he first became interested in astronomy, there were few projects where citizen scientists could contribute directly.

“I often apply the same logic that I use to trace a problem in a computer to face new challenges [within the Disk Detective program],” Mr. Durantini-Luca tells the Monitor in an email. “We have a communication flow between the volunteers, where we share ideas and experiences, [and with] the science team. They return feedback that allows for an enrichment experience for everybody.”

“They all have slightly different biases, different levels of preparation, different eyes, and different computer screens,” Kuchner says. “Just by having more people look at something, you’re able to compensate for human biases in a way that you can’t do otherwise.”

But it takes a lot of work to create a project that citizen scientists can meaningfully contribute to, Kuchner says. And many scientific institutions aren’t yet equipped to handle these projects on the larger scale.

“It’s a new thing for scientists to rely on having a good connection to the public,” Kuchner says. “We are going to have to continue trying to take down walls between scientists and the public to make this process more efficient.”

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