The Weird, Wild World of Citizen Science Is Already Here

David Lang in Wired: “Up and down the west coast of North America, countless numbers of starfish are dying. The affliction, known as Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, is already being called the biggest die-off of sea stars in recorded history, and we’re still in the dark as to what’s causing it or what it means. It remains an unsolved scientific mystery. The situation is also shaping up as a case study of an unsung scientific opportunity: the rise of citizen science and exploration.
The sea star condition was first noticed by Laura James, a diver and underwater videographer based in Seattle. As they began washing up on the shore near her home with lesions and missing limbs, she became concerned and notified scientists. Similar sightings started cropping up all along the West Coast, with gruesome descriptions of sea stars that were disintegrating in a matter of days, and populations that had been decimated. As scientists race to understand what’s happening, they’ve enlisted the help of amateurs like James, to move faster. Pete Raimondi’s lab at UC Santa Cruz has created the Sea Star Wasting Map, the baseline for monitoring the issue, to capture the diverse set of contributors and collaborators.
The map is one of many new models of citizen-powered science–a blend of amateurs and professionals, looking and learning together–that are beginning to emerge. Just this week, NASA endorsed a group of amateur astronomers to attempt to rescue a vintage U.S. spacecraft. NASA doesn’t have the money to do it, and this passionate group of citizen scientists can handle it.
Unfortunately, the term “citizen science” is terrible. It’s vague enough to be confusing, yet specific enough to seem exclusive. It’s too bad, too, because the idea of citizen science is thrilling. I love the notion that I can participate in the expanding pool of human knowledge and understanding, even though the extent of my formal science education is a high school biology class. To me, it seemed a genuine invitation to be curious. A safe haven for beginners. A license to explore.
Not everyone shares my romantic perspective, though. If you ask a university researcher, they’re likely to explain citizen science as a way for the public to contribute data points to larger, professionally run studies, like participating in the galaxy-spotting website Zooniverse or taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count with the Audubon Society. It’s a model on the scientific fringes; using broad participation to fill the gaps in necessary data.
There’s power in this diffuse definition, though, as long as new interpretations are welcomed and encouraged. By inviting and inspiring people to ask their own questions, citizen science can become much more than a way of measuring bird populations. From the drone-wielding conservationists in South Africa to the makeshift biolabs in Brooklyn, a widening circle of participants are wearing the amateur badge with honor. And all of these groups–the makers, the scientists, the hobbyists–are converging to create a new model for discovery. In other words, the maker movement and the traditional science world are on a collision course.
To understand the intersection, it helps to know where each of those groups is coming from….”