Will the Next Great Scientific Discovery Be Made by Amateurs?
There are more options than ever to get involved, and your input can help solve big problems in science
By Nathan Hurst
Jun 15 2017
n 2016, a bright purple ribbon glowed over Alberta, Canada, and the scientists who study aurora borealis—the northern lights—didn’t even know it was there. Reports started to come in from night-sky watchers, enthusiasts with cameras and the skills to document the aurora, affectionately named Steve, which was unusually far south for an aurora. These hobbyists had access to the scientists—and a way to share their experiences and data, thanks to Aurorasaurus, a crowdsourced aurora-reporting tool built by a collaboration including members of NASA, Penn State University, a university-industry collaboration called The New Mexico Consortium, and Science Education Solutions a small R&D company that works with science education curricula and programs.
“Their cameras and knowledge were in a location where we hadn’t had a lot of measurements,” says Liz MacDonald, a program scientist at NASA who also works on the Aurorasaurus project. “Their photos revealed something that we hadn’t understood well, and have really contributed to basically better understanding of the way the aurora works.” Scientists paired the photos with satellite observations, and are using the results to try to determine the cause of this unique aurora.
“Technologies that we have now accessible to us—smartphones and the internet—all of these things allow us to be better connected where observations and human computing power can contribute to big problems.”
The aurora hunters who used Aurorasaurus are a shining example of the growing influence of citizen scientists who, enabled by computing power, apps, and increasing acceptance from researchers, are contributing directly to scientific research.
Citizen science is the subject of a panel MacDonald is hosting this week at Future Con in Washington, DC, a three-day science, technology and entertainment celebration inside Awesome Con June 16-18. Featuring also Kristen Weaver, an outreach specialist at NASA who is deputy coordinator of GLOBE Observer, a citizen science program that tracks all sorts of data about the natural world, Sophia Liu, an innovation specialist at the US Geological Survey who is also co-chair of the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, and Jessica Rosenberg, an astronomer who has worked extensively with citizen science projects, the panel will address some of the successful examples of collaboration between scientists and amateur scientists, as well as offer tips on how to get involved.
Centuries ago, all scientists were citizen scientists, either funded by patrons or on their own. It was with the advent of the modern university system that the field started to require degrees, points out Shane Larson, a research associate professor at Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics and an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. Larson is a co-investigator on Gravity Spy, a project that asks volunteers to distinguish gravitational waves from glitches in data provided by laser interferometers, which use lasers to measure the stretching of space by gravity, but he isn’t on the Future Con panel.