Andrew Grey doesn’t fit most people’s vision of an astronomer. He works in a garage, not in a lab or university, yet the Australian mechanic discovered a star system hiding in data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope.
Mr. Grey is one of millions of citizen scientists helping researchers to expand collective understanding. Ordinary people of all ages and backgrounds have been contributing to science for centuries on a small scale, but advances in technology have brought a higher level of democratization to science.
“This is a collaborative endeavor that anyone could get involved in,” says Chris Lintott, an Oxford University astrophysicist and cofounder of Zooniverse, a platform that hosts dozens of citizen science projects. Citizen scientists can contribute to breakthroughs in almost any field, from ecology to astrophysics.
As long as pattern recognition is involved, there are no limits to what can become a citizen science project, Dr. Lintott says. Anyone can identify patterns in images, graphs, or even seemingly boring data after a short tutorial, he says. Machine learning allows computers to do some pattern recognition. But humans, particularly amateur scientists, get distracted, Lintott says. And that’s good, he says, because distracted people notice the unusual things in a data set.
And citizen science doesn’t have to be directed by a scientist, says Sheila Jasanoff, director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard University. “Citizens generating knowledge in places where official organs have failed them” can also be citizen scientists, she says. That’s what happened in Flint, Mich., when a local mother initiated drinking water tests that prompted a broader investigation of lead levels.
Citizen-powered research is as old as scientific inquiry. For centuries before science became professionalized, regular people looked for patterns in the world around them. Despite a wealth of sophisticated equipment and computer models, scientists still welcome help from everyday people.
As a professional scientist himself, Lintott says, “people think that we’re intelligent, but science is easy and we need your help.”