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Citizen scientists

Posted 19/12/2013 by sevans

My husband is an avid birdwatcher and moths and butterflies enthusiast. Rows of notebooks dating back to the 1970s record countless hours of fieldwork documenting weather conditions, location and numbers of observed species, painstakingly transferred to the Mapmate database before being sent off to national recorders.

And my husband is not alone. Up and down the country, an army of other natural history enthusiasts are doing the same, recording information that is vital for providing insights onto population dynamics, habitat loss and climate change.

Today, however, it appears that the role of such so-called citizen scientists is expanding. A story on page 6 of the next issue of C&I for example, due out in January 2014, reports on a new project called ILIAD (International Laboratory for Identification of Antibacterial Drugs) that encourages amateur scientists to try their hand at testing for antibiotic activity at home. A simple three-step kit enables them to first identify a sample – say part of a plant or insect, and then test for activity against (non-pathogenic) bacteria on an agar plate.

The findings are documented on a website for other scientists to analyse – results that the project organisers believe may help to throw up leads to potential new antibiotics.

Low cost and easy-to-use diagnostic kits, allied with modern computational technologies, have spurred the development of Open Innovation activities inviting participation in activities from developing new water treatment technologies to finding novel agrochemicals and drugs. Meanwhile, other crowdsourcing science efforts – such as FoldIt, Zooniverse and Cancer Research UK’s Cell Slider, also recognise the power of the public.

And as ILIAD co-founder Josiah Zayner, from Chicago University is quoted as saying in the C&I story, engaging people in such work ‘is to not only have people participate in an open science project with consequences but to also learn and be more familiar with science by doing actual experiments. In science, we are starting to admit to ourselves that a person can still do science without a PhD.’

So as C&I readers settle back to enjoy the Christmas Festivities, you might be interested to try a few experiments for the Christmas dinner table from Science Learning Centres, including making instant snow from superabsorbent polymers. Of course, you might just prefer to put your feet up and watch the telly.

A happy Christmas to all from C&I.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy Editor

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