Discovery Files

Novel Answer to That Perennial "Earth Day" Question: "What Can I Do to Help?"

Groups of citizen scientists are making pivotal contributions to research on the Earth, its place in the universe and other natural phenomena

Earth Day invariably triggers discussions about the enormously complex state of the planet and begs the equally daunting question, "How can one person make a difference?"

But just one person can indeed chip in as a citizen scientist, who helps the scientific community unravel the mysteries of where Mother Nature is today and where she is headed.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds groups of these concerned volunteers who collect data and share their observations and insights on a scale that full-time scientists simply cannot accomplish.

"Volunteer citizen scientists are helping to generate new knowledge about biodiversity, the weather, stars and galaxies, and even the molecules in cells," says David Hanych, an NSF program manager. "The significance of their contributions is supported by various lines of evidence."

As citizen scientists contribute to science, they also learn about the natural and human-made worlds, as well as the nature and methods of science, adds Hanych. NSF supports citizen science projects because they advance discovery and promote learning.

Groups of citizen scientists provide boots on the ground in all 50 states and internationally. Joining citizen scientist groups usually doesn't require any previous scientific training or background--just curiosity and a willingness to carry out relatively simple tasks, such as monitoring backyard rain gauges, observing the brightness of stars, or taking pictures of local ladybugs, to name just a few examples.

Although citizen science projects have existed since the 1800s, the number of projects has increased dramatically during the past decade. The increase is partly due to the availability of Internet resources that are making it easier to form and to manage citizen groups and transmit data from citizen scientists to the scientific community.

The ranks of citizen scientists include families, retirees, entire school classes--and even prison inmates who want to do their part to make Earth Day more than a holiday. And regardless of the backgrounds of citizen scientists, studies show that the data collected by them has been reliable and valid, Hanych notes.

The contributions of citizen scientists have also been valuable in terms of the volume of data they provide and the originality of their insights.

For one thing, citizen scientists provide strength in sheer numbers. For example, the USA National Phenology Network, which monitors the timing of seasonal events such as spring blooms, currently engages more than 4,000 volunteers across the United States. Since 2008, these volunteers have contributed 1 million records to the NPN database--far more data than researchers could collect themselves.

In some cases, citizen scientists are the sole sources of important types of data. Henry Reges, the national coordinator of the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network, which feeds information about precipitation to the National Weather Service and others, says even a single, real-time report of major precipitation from a volunteer in an area that is otherwise not monitored can speed the issuance of potentially life-saving flash flood warnings.

Sometimes too, citizen scientists offer new perspectives that can catalyze major breakthroughs.  Last year, for example, scientists who were having difficulty piecing together the structure of an important enzyme from an AIDS-like virus consulted a group of online gamers who were aficionados of the computer game known as Foldit.

Foldit allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules. The result: The gamers generated models that helped the researchers refine and determine the enzyme's structure in just a few days; these models helped the researchers advance their work designing anti-AIDS drugs. (This article describes this Foldit success.)

Here is a sample of citizen science groups that have received NSF support; they illustrate the wide range of interesting and important activities taking place across the United States--not only on Earth Day, but every day.

  • The USA National Phenology Network brings together citizen scientists, government agencies, nonprofit groups, educators and students to monitor the impact of climate change on plants and animals in the U.S. Many scientific papers on changes in the timing of seasonal events have been based on this group's data.
  • Project Budburst engages the public in collecting data on the timing of the leafing, flowering and fruiting of plants in the United States. Data generated by Project BudBurst was recently used to help validate models of the timing of cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., and the mid-Atlantic states in the presence of climate change.
  • Projects sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology help researchers better understand birds and their habits via varied programs involving inventories of the abundance and distribution of birds over large distances; analyses of how birds are affected by climate change, urbanization and land use; the development of new methods for identifying birds; and advice for individuals for converting their backyards into bird-friendly habitats.

  • Much of the data included in the Department of Interior's annual State of the Birds report for 2011 originated from Cornell's citizen science programs. The report helps public agencies identify significant conservation opportunities in various habitats.

  • Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team collects data on beached birds found on more than 300 beaches from the north coast of California to Alaska in order to help monitor ecosystem health.
  • The Lost Ladybug Project recruits residents of geographical areas throughout the United States to submit photographs of ladybugs from their local areas in order to help scientists determine how and why the ranges of various economically and ecologically important species of ladybugs are currently rapidly changing.
  • The Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network measures and maps rain, hail and snow levels throughout the United States. Users of this organization's data include the National Weather Service, meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities (water supply, water conservation and storm water), insurance adjusters, the USDA, engineers, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, outdoor enthusiasts, teachers, students and local residents. Learn more about this group from its animated introductory video.
  • Citizen Sky Program solves mysteries involving the cyclic dimming of a particularly bright star known as Epsilon Aurigae, based, in part, on nightly observations of the star's brightness that are recorded by citizen scientists using everything from the naked eye to high-tech equipment.

  • The editor of Sky & Telescope discussed the importance of contributions made by citizen scientists to the development of recent new insights about Epison Aurigae in two video interviews, as well as the particular importance of recruiting citizen scientists into astronomical research during periods of shrinking research budgets. In addition, the March 2012 issue of Sky & Telescope features an article covering this topic.
  • Einstein@Home (Website) uses donated time from the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers from 192 countries to help process the enormous amounts of data that are generated in the search for various astronomical phenomena. The program has helped scientists discover about one new pulsar per week throughout 2012. (This press release, which includes a video, describes the discovery of a pulsar by citizen scientists.)
  • Quake-Catcher Network links the computers of volunteers into a network that sifts through seismic signals and helps determine whether detected motions represent earthquakes or cultural noises, such as slamming doors and the motions of large trucks. Recently, the Quake-Catcher Network detected a tremor 10 seconds before the shaking reached Stanford University's campus. Read about it here.
  • Sustainable Prisons Project forges collaborations between scientists, inmates, prison staff and others to enable inmates to conduct ecological research and conserve biodiversity. An NSF press release features the Moss-in-Prisons project at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, a medium security prison in Littlerock, Wash., and an NSF video entitled "Science Behind Bars" is posted here.

"New projects exploring many fields of science are currently on the drawing board," says Hanych. "NSF plans to continue supporting those that actively engage members of the public in timely scientific research and measure the impact of the projects on participants and their contributions to science."

Additional Resources

  • Webcast: Two "Firsts" Give Citizen Science New Prominence in Addressing Societal Problems
  • NSF-funded comprehensive website on developing citizen science projects and clearinghouse of information about the field.
  • Portal to Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science projects, almost all of which are funded by NSF or were started with NSF funding.
  • The first large-scale, open conference on public participation in scientific research will be held in Portland, Ore., on August 4 and 5, 2012. (See the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Web page.)