Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sunday Stuff: Citizen Science

If you've ever listened to reports about "scientific evidence" and wondered how those data were collected and analyzed, you might be interested to know that there are many opportunities for everyday people to get involved in real science projects.

Last year, one of the UK's radio stations, BBC Radio 4, encouraged non-scientists to investigate interesting phenomena and conduct small-scale experiments in a competition called "So You Want to Be a Scientist?" The winner was 69-year-old grandmother Ruth Brooks, who investigated homing behavior in common garden snails. As a result of her work, Ruth was named Britain's Amateur Scientist of the Year. Click on the links above to find out more about the competition and Ruth's experiment, and to hear her acceptance speech.

In the wake of the recent disastrous crude oil leak in the Gulf, developers at CrisisCommons created a phone app called "Oil Reporter," which allows anyone with an iPhone or a Google Android phone to report the presence of oil patches, oil-covered animals, or any other oil-related problems along the Gulf. The data are stored by San Diego State University and can be used by any member of the public interested in analyzing the spread of oil or the extent of the damage it has caused (or is causing).

The Smithsonian Institution has begun an initiative called "Shout," which connects classrooms with each other and with scientific experts around the world. Its ultimate goal is to help the environment while simultaneously teaching students about how to conduct scientific experiments. One Shout initiative is the Tree Banding Project, in which students install dendrometers so they can monitor tree growth. Among other things, this allows them to measure biomass and compare growth rates in different locations and different times of year.

US birders are probably familiar with Cornell's eBird initiative, which involves many projects geared towards making everyday bird observations scientifically useful. Anyone can log in and report sightings of rare birds or unusual bird behaviors, and people with backyard feeders can submit tallies of the animals they've seen visiting their property. Although these reports are not always scientifically rigorous in the strictest sense--not all observers are collecting data in a uniform way--they can still be very useful in highlighting patterns that merit further research by the experts. After all, professional scientists don't have an inexhaustible supply of time and energy, so an army of citizen scientists is bound to be helpful.

One last tidbit isn't strictly citizen science, since it also involved a handful of experts, but it's close enough to count. The BBC News has recently reported the discovery of a new aphid species in Cornwall, the most southwesterly county in England. It was found at the Duchy College in Camborne during a survey effort called the "BioBlitz," which involved college students, staff, members of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, and wildlife specialists. The aphid is native to Italy, where it is only found on Italian alders. These trees are commonly planted in Cornwall to act as windbreaks, and clearly a few Italian aphids arrived in the UK as stowaways. Discovery of the aphid just goes to show that anyone with a sharp eye can make important observations--even in somewhere as familiar as their own backyard or a campus just down the road.

Thanks to http://www.pdphoto.org/PictureDetail.php?mat=&pg=5612 for providing the snail photo used in this post. All other images came from the websites linked to within the main body of the post.

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