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Rise of the citizen scientist

Posted 20/08/2013 by cgodfrey

Increasingly we are hearing the term ‘citizen scientist’ – listening to the BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4 during the drive to the office on 21 August, for example, the term was used in connection with a research project to look at the animals most frequently killed on UK roads.

But what are citizen scientists? And how do they operate? Well, this descriptor is most frequently used for the armies of people recruited  usually to record their observations, be they bird types seen in their garden as followers of the BBC’s Spring Watch and Autumn Watch programmes are encouraged to record or amateur astronomers who scan the night skies for previously unrecorded phenomenon like new comets or asteroids.

This is not new, of course, ‘the man in the street’ has frequently been called upon to observe and report sightings, events, etc. on a local basis, and there have been computer programmes that can utilise the downtime on individuals’ personal computers to speed up massive calculations, for example.

But it is the rise of social media that has made the whole process a lot simpler. Making it easier to report phenomena can always be expected to increase the numbers of people making reports and the number of their reports – what could be simpler with today’s obsession of holding a mobile phone or computer tablet during almost every waking moment?

The interconnected world does have its benefits, but is it leading also to an increased interest in ‘science’ – are these individuals actually thinking about the reasons behind the projects and what might be learnt from them, or are they just making use of the technology ‘to keep in touch’? Certainly the proud announcements of having so many hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook might tend to indicate the latter – that really it is only about demonstrating to others how ‘connected’ one is, but is there something deeper?

Another indication of a possible increase in public interest in science is the return of BBC TV’s Science Club. These programmes cover an enormous range of science and appropriate applications. Whether you are a fan of the main presenter, or not, is irrelevant – his credentials are more than adequate, but one can’t help feeling that interest might be increased if he didn’t rush and garble what he is saying!

One is reminded of BBC TV’s Tomorrow’s World series – although one can’t forget the oft-made criticism that to appear on the programme was the ‘kiss of death’ for any innovation!

One can only hope that same is not true for the research and inventions that are featured on Science Club, but its popularity and that of the Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution, which are also broadcasted by the BBC, indicate that there is an increasing interest in science and the benefits it can bring. And the rise of the citizen scientist can only promote that interaction – getting involved stimulates further action and a desire for understanding.

What do you think? Please let us know below.

Neil Eisberg  - Editor

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