You the Scientist: The Importance of Citizen Science Programs

By Kristen Witte

The wind whips across the beach, bringing a surprising chill to an otherwise sunny day – though spring in Chicago is anything but predictable. As the cold seeps into your gloveless hands, you wonder if the next incoming wave from Lake Michigan will smash into you before a sufficient amount of water accumulates into the collection canister. You quickly cap the canister and walk over to your colleagues who are sitting a safe distance from the surf, waiting patiently with a thermometer and a pH tester.
Raise your hand if you imagined this scene to represent a group of environmental scientists working to better understand our Great Lakes. While that is traditionally the case, the current face of science is undergoing a dramatic shift. No longer is science reserved for those with advanced degrees and lab coats. Rather, this scene illustrates a rapidly growing and necessary force in scientific inquiry: the Citizen Scientist.

Citizen Science – no lab coat necessary

Perhaps the earliest known example of citizen science is the story of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, better known as a pioneer of microscopy and the father of microbiology. A merchant by profession, van Leeuwenhoek took the scientific world by storm when, in the 1670s, he began reporting on “animalcules” that he observed using high-powered lenses of his own creation. Within the decade, professional scientists verified his observations and the field of microbiology was born (Cooper 2016).

Throughout history, citizens like van Leeuwenhoek have been critical to moving scientific discovery forward. For example, the revelation that monarch butterflies migrate from the northern United States and Canada to Mexico and back again occurred because of citizens’ efforts in capturing and tagging monarchs locally (Urquhart 1976).

More recently, scientists enlisted everyday subway travelers to swab the surfaces of the New York City subway system in the hopes of mapping microbial diversity throughout the city. Strikingly, the citizen collected data revealed that this interconnected system of trains has a unique microbial signature at each and every station (Afshinnekoo 2015). The sheer volume of data collected would have been inaccessible without these volunteer citizen scientists.

Not only can citizen scientists reveal unknown stories of the world around us, they can have a substantial impact on social policy. Decades of bird-watching hobbyists collected sufficient data to reveal in 1997 the impact of climate change on a myriad species of birds’ nesting behaviors (Crick 1997). The results from that study were used as evidence in the Kyoto Protocol to establish that climate change was already having an effect on wildlife, even if humans had yet to feel it (Cooper 2016).

Cultural institutions are leaders in Citizen Science

Bridget Coughlin is intimately familiar with stories like these. As the CEO of the Shedd Aquarium, Dr. Coughlin strives to integrate hands-on, guest-centered science experiences through the numerous conservation and research efforts that the Shedd spearheads. On April 4th, Dr. Coughlin spoke about these efforts at the Fortnightly, an event hosted by C2ST and the ARCS Foundation, Illinois Chapter.

While many of us may be most familiar with the Shedd through their menagerie of aquatic houseguests (Jazzin’ at the Shedd, anyone?), the Shedd is also a leading research institute that strives to better understand and to conserve the unique species that mirror our planet’s well-being.

For example, studies on Rock Iguanas in the Bahamas directly led to the expansion of a land-and-sea national park, providing further protection to the fragile Caribbean ecosystem (Moss 2015). Locally, Shedd researchers investigate the “wildebeests of the Great Lakes:” a migratory fish called a sucker. Alterations in their spawning-induced migration habits can yield direct insight into the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem (Hawthorne 2017).

Critical to many research endeavors at the Shedd are the contributions of citizen scientists. Tracking the migration of suckers requires a broad network of volunteers that extends from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior. Moreover, Great Lakes Action Days are opportunities for local residents to both keep their beaches clean and to make a direct and positive impact on the local wildlife through surveys and data collection.

The Shedd is not the only leader in the citizen science movement within Chicago. Museum Campus as a whole has numerous citizen science endeavors. In 2007, the Adler Planetarium created an online platform called Zooniverse, that today is the world’s largest online citizen science venture (Trouille 2017). Moving over to Lakeshore Drive, The Field Museum offers a variety of citizen science programs ranging from bird-watching to tracking ant species that live in urban areas. Collectively, Chicago’s cultural institutions are actualizing the necessity of citizen science engagement and creating a wide-breadth of opportunities to inspire public action.

The democratization of science

While citizen science is by no means new, the open science movement and the emergence of the Internet of Things drove its rejuvenation (Bonney 2009). Indeed, the expansion of open source publishing and data outlets (i.e. eLife, PLOS, Github, etc.) inspired a new wave of science that blurs the authoritative binary of “scientist and non-scientist” (Graybeal 2013; Saraga 2016). In this newly embraced reality, everyone is a scientist regardless of personal, geographical, or socioeconomic background (Garbarino 2016).  And that is a really good thing.

In the age of Google, our society is evolving to a state where everyone can be an expert and they expect the opportunity to inspect the data themselves (Guernsey 2000). By openly disseminating rigorous scientific studies, scientists provide the necessary materials to promote critical thinking and to dismantle the widening chasm between public and scientific opinion (Funk 2015; Garbarino 2016).

Citizen science endeavors are the flip side of the same coin. Currently, only 1 in 4 Americans hold science in high confidence (Funk 2017), and the general population’s perceived value of science decreased in recent years (Funk 2015). Citizen science programs have the potential to reverse the diminution of science by creating inclusive and meaningful experiences where everyone identifies with and has a stake in the scientific enterprise (Garbarino 2016). To reinvigorate science as the forerunner to solving our most pressing social issues, it is our responsibility to intimately involve those who scientific advancement directly benefits – everyone.

–Kristen is a newly-minted Ph.D. with an insatiable curiosity for all things science – the more complex and interconnected the better. While they spent the past 6 years experimenting on the beer-producing, bread-making cells called yeast, they are now pursuing their passion to cultivate enthusiasm for scientific curiosity in the general public. You can find them nerding out at museums, the library, or other C2ST events.


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Crick H.Q.P et. al. UK birds are laying eggs earlier. Nature. 388 6642, 526 (1997).

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Urquhart, Fred A. (August 1976). Found at last: the monarch’s winter home. National Geographic.

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