Citizen science: The dawn of amateur scientific discovery

In the past, scientific research was pursued by the world’s trained scientists, with only a few exceptions. Jack Schofield discusses how nowadays all enthusiastic citizens can contribute to the frontiers of scientific research


Most of us are introduced to science at school as a rigid set of principles, equations and facts – laws that describe the world. Most of us don’t experience the process by which we construct these laws when studying science. As the astronomer Carl Sagan said, “Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking.” The scientific process of hypothesising, asking and answering questions through experimentation, is as important as the facts themselves. This is how we can contribute to the body of knowledge, rather than regurgitate it. Science is a creative endeavour, not just robotic repetition.

Testing our ideas with experiment is what science is all about. Modern science education gives us prescribed practical classes, where we perform experiments that are laid out for us, generating results that surprise no one. Such classes do not come close to replicating real science, where we explore ideas and ask questions that excite us, without knowing where exactly the answers will lead us. Science, however, is not confined to classrooms or academia anymore. With citizen science, research done by enthusiastic amateurs, we can all get involved in science, regardless of our backgrounds.

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

“With citizen science, research done by enthusiastic amateurs, we can all get involved in science, regardless of our backgrounds.”

A pioneer in modern citizen science was the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a project scanning the skies for radio signals from potential alien civilisations with huge telescopes. SETI hopes to find signs that we are not alone as intelligent life in the universe. Sifting through the mountains of data generated in this search required huge, power-hungry supercomputers. SETI@home, launched in 1999, replaced these expensive behemoths with a ‘virtual supercomputer’ by sharing SETI data with a network of thousands of citizen computers around the world.

This allowed for faster and more comprehensive analysis of possible alien signals. Ordinary citizen scientists involved in SETI@home could one day help us to listen in on some alien radio communication by plugging their computers into SETI@home.

SETI@home is fairly basic citizen science, using people’s computers, not their brains. Now, however, SETI is examining stars which have been put on the map by eagle-eyed citizen scientists. Planet Hunters is a citizen science group focused on exoplanet research. Participants sift through the mountains of data generated with NASA’s Kepler telescope, looking for signs of exoplanets (light from stars outside of the solar system being dimmed during planetary orbits). In their study of the extrasolar star, KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s Star, the planet hunters noticed a strange signal. In May 2009, the light from the star was blocked by a huge, asymmetric structure. It seemed too large to have been a planet and passed in front of the star for far longer than a planet should. In 2011, the light from the star dropped by 15% and then in 2013, 20% of the light was blocked.

The object blocking the light may be up to 1000 times the size of Earth and its transit is not characteristic of a planet. The most exciting possibility put forward is that the light is being dimmed by ‘alien megastructures’. The size of the object or objects and the irregularity of their transit across the star have led some to suggest that it is a Dyson Sphere, a tremendous sphere of solar panels gathering energy from the star. SETI turned its Alien Telescope Array on the planet in 2016, searching for narrow and broad band transmissions from aliens. They have found no evidence yet of radio chatter, so it may not be aliens. Whatever turns out to be orbiting Tabby’s Star, it’s sure to be interesting and we have the Planet Hunters to thank for pointing it out.

Online platforms and amateur scientific discoveries

“Foldit players, in a challenge event, given just three weeks, were able to solve the structure for the first time. They had done better than the structural biochemists and computer programmes before them.”

Now CERN, the organisation that discovered the Higgs boson, an essential particle in the Standard Model of physics, has got involved with citizen science. CERN has helped to start a sister-project to Planet Hunters with ‘Higgs Hunters’, where citizen scientists analyse data from CERN’s ATLAS detector. CERN is hoping these citizens can help them to find particles related to the Higgs boson. The Planet and Higgs Hunter projects come from Zooniverse, an online platform for citizen scientists to find projects, start their own and discuss their work. There are plenty of other science projects to get involved in at their website.     

In biology, we study molecules so complex that that even computers whose job it is to analyse them have difficulties. The molecular machinery of our cells is composed primarily of proteins. The way that proteins work is dependent on the three-dimensional shapes into which they are folded. Analysis of protein function in cells relies upon an understanding of these structures. While it is difficult for computers to decipher protein shapes, humans have superb spatial reasoning.

This ability was tapped into with Foldit, an online game where players compete to arrange proteins into stable configurations. Mason-Pfizer monkey virus retroviral protease, a protein from a simian (monkey) virus which causes AIDs, had evaded full structural analysis for a decade. Foldit players, in a challenge event, given just three weeks, were able to solve the structure for the first time. They had done better than the structural biochemists and computer programmes before them. Their work moved beyond online leaderboards, with individual players being rewarded with credit in a Nature paper describing the work.

The structures that Foldit players worked out may help in drug development, assisting to disable the protein involved in AIDs. The success of Foldit has led to citizen science being applied to other biological problems. Studying the complexity of the human brain involves mapping the billions of connections between neurons, which together, make up the human ‘connectome’. This massive task is being tackled by Eyewire players. Eyewire is a game created by Sebastian Seung at MIT, where human players’ spatial reasoning and pattern recognition are used to map connections in human retinal neurons, which will help us understand the connectome.

This ‘gamification’ of scientific problems is also being used to work out other complex biological structures such as RNA with ‘EteRNA’ or even catalogue evolutionary relations in ‘Phylo’. We can then, without much training in science or access to sophisticated academic labs, make contributions to science by playing with the data.

Dublin Maker and TCD’s Synthetic Biology Project

Citizen science like this, scanning alien signals or folding proteins, although important, is really just ordinary people wading through huge datasets, tackling the work that professionals can’t get through. More personal, inventive science is being done in the Hacker or Maker movements. Events built around these movements have sprung up here in Ireland, where people from many backgrounds have engaged with science. Dublin hosts, for example, the international 48-hour Science Hack Day events. This annual hackathon has engineers, artists and computer scientists come together to see what problems they can solve or contraptions they can build in 48 hours.

This convergence of skill sets has produced drum-solo pants, tweeting toasters and electronic Irish dancing shoes at the Dublin events. This kind of citizen science also goes on show during the summer at Dublin Maker events. Like Science Hack Days, teams or individuals come together to show off their technical ingenuity. At this summer’s Maker, cardboard virtual reality headsets, beautiful wooden kits explaining basic maths and physics to kids, and giant circuit boards were on show. This author was part of a team of Trinity undergraduates at Maker, with TCD iGEM’s Synthetic Biology project. We were exhibiting glowing ‘BioArt’ pictures by team member Bronwyn Berkeley. E. coli bacteria expressing fluorescent proteins were used to ‘paint’ everything from Van Gogh’s Chair to maps of Ireland.


TCD iGEM 2016 (Bronwyn Berkeley)

This kind of DIY biology has exploded in popularity recently, with community biohackerspaces inviting people with no formal training in biology to come together to tinker with cells and genes. One of the first of these spaces was BioCurious in Silicon Valley, who have worked on everything from open source bioprinters to vegan cheese. Since then, biohackerspaces have opened up around the world, including Ireland with ‘FormaLabs’ in Cork.

Those of us that don’t study the arts or languages at college don’t think that these areas are closed to us forever more. People get involved at any age, regardless of background. We should have the same enthusiasm when doing science. What these citizen scientists show, whether they be hunting down planets or particles, mapping the human brain or painting with proteins, is that science is open to us all. Science is just the way that we ask how the natural world works. Citizen science is an open invitation for us to ask more questions.