The power of citizen science
From identifying distant galaxies, to probing the mysteries of DNA, some of the most amazing scientific discoveries are being made possible through the assistance of non-scientist volunteers. University of Sussex academics describe how collaborating with ‘citizen scientists’ can benefit everyone.
'People say they had a lot of fun and want to help us with further research'
Professor Dave Goulson and his PhD student Linda Birkin turned to gardening enthusiasts to help with a project looking at garden and allotment pollination.
This is a crucial area of research as ecosystems are under threat from environmental factors such as pesticide use and the declining populations of natural pollinators.
The Sussex biologists put out a call for volunteers through the media, facebook and social media for volunteers to grow dwarf beans from seeds and then to carry out a simple experiment.
Professor Goulson said: “What’s great about doing this kind of science is that, while helping us to gather genuinely useful data, our volunteer scientists are getting a lot out of this too, learning about pollination, and how scientific experiments work."
Following a response from hundreds, packets of dwarf-bean seeds (vica faba L), together with instructions, were sent to those interested. The experiment, which required just a few minutes of their time every week, involved keeping pollinators away from some flowers, hand pollinating others and comparing to the efforts of local insects.
Eighty people from around the UK successfully completed the experiment, and collectively showed that, for the moment at least, there are enough broad bean pollinators in most gardens to ensure they get pollinated. And at the end the volunteers got to eat the beans!
"The feedback we’ve had has been tremendous," says Professor Goulson. "People were saying that they had a lot of fun and were really interested in helping us with further research.”
The results were reported in the scientific journal Ecological Entomology.
'People meet others with similar interests - a bit like a dating service!'
While computer technology has made great advances in analysing data, there are some tasks that are still best suited to human brains and eyes.
This is why online communities of tens of thousands of people eager to help out with science studies, such as those featured on The Zooniverse have grown in the past ten years, and why scientists, including those at Sussex, have turned to them to help with their own studies.
The Zooniverse project is used to classify everything from seabird populations to WWI war diaries. It has its origins in Galaxy Zoo, which started with a data set of a million a galaxies imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that all needed to be classified. Within 24 hours of the project’s launch, they were receiving 70,000 classifications an hour. More than 50 million classifications were received during the project’s first year, contributed by 150,000 people.
Astrophysicist Professor Kathy Romer, who uses tools provided by The Zooniverse to classify clusters of galaxies for the Dark Energy Survey, said: “There are certain pattern recognition problems that cannot be done by machines because the differences are too subtle, although what’s happening now is that humans are training the machines by creating ever more sophisticated algorithms.”
The benefit to scientists is clear, she says. “We can create our own 'zoos' and get the general public to carry out the classifications. We used to write all our own software, now it’s all available for free from zooniverse.org. It saves us an amazing amount of time.”
But she also cautions that that there are some safeguarding issues for the willing volunteers.
“People who are commissioning citizen science should be aware of because of the type of personality it attracts. They can be people who shut themselves off, and become obsessive.
“One person I knew felt she was being excluded because her partners was so into Galaxy Zoo. But then, people can meet others with similar interests through it and it can become a bit like a dating service!”
And while citizen science sites can help to inspire young people to become interested in science, she doubts that they will ever be the strongest influence. “To be honest, I think what makes the biggest difference for kids is their teachers.”
‘Schoolchildren get to see what real research is all about’
The head of biology at the school, Dr Fiona Mansfield, had already approached him to see if there was a way to develop a partnership program, and Dr Baxter realised that rather than enlist undergraduates to help with the research – as would normally have been the case - there was no reason why keen sixth-formers couldn’t do it instead.
They applied for a Royal Society School Partnership grant - a scheme set up by Sussex alumna Becky Parker - and were awarded £3,000, which went towards equipping the school with an incubator and microbiology cell counters.
The Year 13 students, who were attending a science club for four hours a week, were required to grow yeast cells to which had been added an artificial chromosome and then to look for and count the frequency of loss of the chromosome in different genetic backgroundsevidenced by the cells turning white.
Even though the experiment was straightforward, transferring the technique from a professional to a school setting required a little tweaking. Ensuring the correct laboratory procedures were followed was a crucial factor in the success or failure of the data gathered.
“It took a while for them to understand the importance of sterile techniques,” says Dr Baxter. “We had to discard a lot of the cell plates to begin with because they became contaminated.
“But it was great was that they got to see what real research is all about. Sometimes it’s just about doing something consistently and rigorously. They also got to see that small changes can indicate that something significant is happening.”
The project ran throughout the 2015/16 academic year, and the results will feed into his lab for more sophisticated analysis.
Dr Mansfield said: "The students gained insight into the need for the three 'P's of research: precision, patience and perseverance. They all learned new practical techniques and got a real buzz out of contributing to active research into cancer genomics.”
Feedback from the students was also positive. One said the experience gave her “a new perspective on the joys of a biological degree and the potential for research.” Another described how taking part in an experiment that didn’t have a known answer made him feel as though he was “contributing to real science and discovering something.”
They also had an opportunity to talk about their involvement when they gave a presentation at the Royal Society Partnership Grants Conference in London in front of hundreds of other students, teachers, researchers and Fellows of the Royal Society.
Following this, one of the students gained one of a very limited number of places on an apprenticeship training course to become a university biology laboratory technician. Dr Mansfield said: “Her participation in the project ignited an interest in laboratory work and the experience and skills she gained from being a part of the project allowed her to stand out in the application process."