Amateur Participation in “Open” Science: History and Future
The NSF’s Science Nation news site ran a good piece last year highlighting the way the Internet is amplifying the long-running engagement of amateurs in data gathering throughout history:
Citizen science has been around for centuries, with lay people collecting data and making observations for scientists in a variety of fields. And, citizen scientists are contributing to discoveries as much in the 21st century as ever before.
Lab ecologist Janis Dickinson depends on citizen scientists to help her track the effects of disease, land-use change and environmental contaminants on the nesting success of birds.
“It goes back to the 18th century, with people studying birds in Finland,” explains Dickinson, director of citizen science at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. “It’s a wonderful tradition in Europe, with a couple hundred years of data. It goes back pretty far in North America as well.”
In fields where there are strong synergies between amateurs and hobbyists activities and interests, and scientific data needs, progress is most rapid:
“So those are the two areas where citizen science has been enormously successful,” continues Dickinson. “[And that’s] because there is this wonderful match between this data that we want to gather, and what these hobbyists like to do. There is also a lot of altruism involved. We hear from people that they enjoy helping science, that they are interested in conservation.”
Amateur/citizen participation in this basic step of observational science is likely to be a rapidly expanding path, especially as mobile devices augment the measurement and observation capabilites of citizens - making them more accurate, more comprehensive and expanding the range of phenomena that can be recorded.