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So you think you can science?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

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For:

Citizen science projects are based upon the idea that non-scientists (aka most of the population) can still help out with scientific research in a meaningful way. I think that as long as they are well planned out research designs, made to have a positive impact in the current research fields, they are a great idea.

It is true that research can sometimes involve a lot of number crunching, repetitive tests and observational studies that most of the educated population can do; so leaving these tasks to volunteers may leave more time for scientists to focus on more arduous tasks.

A math teacher is not a scientist per se, but is more than capable to do basic statistical analysis, or even count the number of birds that fly over their house on a Sunday morning.

One of the concerns may involve the validity of the data that they analyse or collect for the project. Can we trust data or analysis from people who are not scientists themselves and may not understand the implication of their actions? First of all the definition of “non-scientist” may need to be established more clearly. A math teacher is not a scientist per se, but is more than capable to do basic statistical analysis, or even count the number of birds that fly over their house on a Sunday morning.

It is also important to state that citizen science projects can sometimes be as simple as having people do surveys, tests and online games to gather data about nutrition, behaviour etc.- a practice that has long been used in scientific research. In the case of direct data collection and transcribing information onto computers, we can only hope that the researchers have trained the people participating accordingly, depending on how important the information is.

concerns may involve the validity of the data that they analyse or collect for the project. Can we trust data or analysis from people who are not scientists?

Citizen science projects should be taken seriously. They are a great way to introduce awareness and scientific curiosity to the general population while making the life of scientists easier and research more stream lined. It is an undeniable fact that the more data is accumulated and analysed, the more validity can be given to the results (if systematic errors and bias are considered properly). In an age where an increasing amount of people are connected by the internet and almost anything can be learnt through it, it would be arrogant and conceited for a scientist to assume that all non-scientists are unable to do great science and contribute to our knowledge as a whole.

Against:

Over the past few years there has been a massive increase in the number of citizen science projects like The Big Sea Survey (even the BBC had a go with BBC Lab UK). These projects often set out with two main aims: to create good quality, high impact research and to educate and excite the public. But it’s not clear how much of this they actually achieve.

Ultimately, science should be about quality, not quantity. This isn’t always the case with citizen science projects.

One of the first things every scientist learns about research is that it should be as accurate and reliable as possible. Citizen science projects are neither. When using so many volunteers with little or no formal scientific training it is impossible to know if the data they are producing are correct. This may be fairly harmless when doing something easy like counting fish, but it becomes almost pointless when doing anything more complicated as volunteers are likely to make mistakes. On the other hand, professional scientists are trained to be accurate and reliable, making the data they generate far more trustworthy than anything done by citizen scientists. This may not produce as much data as citizen science does, but the data produced is far more valuable.

Not only do citizen science projects produce unreliable data; they do not offer many educational benefits either. The training given to volunteers is often very basic and for many projects it simply involves teaching people how to tell the difference between a few species. This does not seem especially educational to me, especially when this type of information can now be readily found by anyone online. If the projects were truly educational, not only would they teach citizen scientists how to collect data but they would give them a true appreciation of the scientific methods behind the data and teach them exactly what the data means in the context of the project. By not doing this, some projects are missing a real educational opportunity.

Many Citizen Science projects sacrifice the reliability of data to try and collect lots of it, while engaging relatively few people.

Ultimately, science should be about quality, not quantity. This isn’t always the case with citizen science projects. Many of them sacrifice the reliability of their data to try and collect lots of it, while engaging relatively few people. There must be a way of getting more people excited about science without affecting the quality of the science performed. Until this is found, science should just be left to those who do it best – the professionals.

Last modified: 19th October 2015

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