Citizen science is the new black

Tom Feilden
Science correspondent, Today

image source, SPL
image captionEnthusiastic amateurs look at images from telescopes and classify galaxies according to their shapes and features.

Citizen science - the trend for involving amateurs in research projects - is all the rage nowadays but is it real science or just good PR?

"This is a blob, nothing too impressive. Oh dear, another blob, these are elliptical galaxies. Ooh look this is a merger..."

The Oxford astronomer Dr Chris Lintott flicks through the first of 70,000 images from UKIDSS, the UK Infrared Deep Sky Survey, that have been posted on the Galaxy Zoo website.

"This one's a disc galaxy, so this might be what the Milky Way looks like from far away," he adds.

The images, which have never been seen before, are part of the latest citizen science project run on the site.

All you have to do is look at the pictures and classify the galaxies according to their shapes and features - does it have arms or a central bulge? Is it elliptical? Does the galaxy have a dust lane across the centre?

The results should help astronomers to understand how galaxies form, but Galaxy Zoo is just the latest in a growing number of astronomical citizen science projects. The enthusiastic amateur can explore the surface of Mars or the Moon, study solar storms, and even hunt for planets orbiting distant stars.

media captionThe Today programme's science correspondent Tom Feilden investigates citizen science

"It's a really exciting time," says Dr Lintott, "citizen science is booming.

"That's because astronomers have painted themselves into a corner. They've got really good at collecting data but not so good at processing it. The human brain is still much better at sorting through these images and telling us what we need to know."

But it is not just astronomy, citizen science is flourishing in pretty much every field of science.

These days you can crunch data on cancer or monitor the spread of ash dieback while playing a simple computer game. You can map the human brain by colouring in neurones, track whales or watch wildlife in the Serengeti all from the comfort of your sofa.

The field of natural history has a proud tradition of amateur involvement, and perhaps it is not so surprising to find citizen science flourishing here.

According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee there may be as many as 100,000 amateur naturalists actively collecting and contributing to citizen science projects in the UK - a volunteer effort worth £20m a year.

A significant number of those projects are run by the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum.

Members of the public are encouraged to drop in with specimens, and to access the museum's extensive collections and talk to research staff.

When I arrived to meet Dr John Tweddle a fungi workshop was in full swing.

image source, Getty Images
image captionCharles Darwin built his theory of evolution by natural selection on the evidence supplied by hundreds of citizen scientists all over the world.

"It's exciting actually. You never know who's going to come through the door and what they're going to come with," says Dr Tweddle.

"Anyone of any ability can come here to access the collections. Citizen science is really booming at the moment and the most effective projects are actually driving the research agenda. It's really useful science," he added.

Of course there is nothing new under the sun.

Although he would not have been familiar with the term, Charles Darwin built his theory of evolution by natural selection on the evidence supplied by hundreds of citizen scientists all over the world. Some 15,000 of the letters he sent or received survive at the Darwin Correspondence Project in the Cambridge University Library.

Associate director Alison Pearn says Darwin could never have compiled the astonishing wealth of evidence to support his theory without the enthusiastic support of amateur naturalists.

"Darwin corresponded with people from all walks of life, plant and animal breeders, gardeners and naturalists, but also diplomats and explorers. He couldn't have achieved what he did without their support. They were eager to contribute to the broadening of knowledge, so it's exactly the same as people do today in what we call citizen science," says Ms Pearn.

The computer has added enormously to the power that the amateur can bring to bear on a problem, but interestingly Dr Lintott argues, it is the human brain's unique ability to spot inconsistencies in the vast sets of data scientists have amassed that makes citizen science so useful.

"The best and most powerful information processor we have is still the one sitting between our ears. The human brain has a remarkable capacity for pattern recognition, but also for spotting the unusual, for being distracted by something that doesn't quite fit, and that's what we really need," he adds.