CAN I VOLUNTEER FOR PEOPLE-POWERED RESEARCH IN SCIENCE? 

 

Visiting a research lab is much easier than volunteering! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Volunteering for research is easy with Zooniverse!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

For those people who feel that simply visiting a research lab is not enough to satisfy their wish to actually do some science work (see:  “Can I Volunteer in Science?  Can I Visit a Research Lab?  How Do I Do That?” ), there are opportunities to work on research in what is termed citizen science, people-powered research, or crowd-sourced research.  This article describes this science activity for the public, discusses its difference from traditional lab-based investigations, and summarizes its value for science and society.

What is people-powered scientific research? 

This consists of many non-scientists using their personal computer (PC) and individual abilities to work on specific research tasks under the supervision of professional research scientists.  A multitude of volunteer workers is needed because huge amounts of data are generated by some modern Big Science projects; those data must be processed before further analysis by the scientists, but no-one is able to hire some hundreds or thousands of research techs to do that work.  Without this input by very many helpers, the same tasks would take an individual scientist years or decades to complete.

This participation in research by groups of volunteer collaborators does not involve previous experience, swirling millions of test tubes, synthesizing exotic new organic chemicals, use of special research instruments, or wearing a white lab coat!  Rather, it involves donation of time and directed effort by individual participants at their convenience.  Typical activities involve use of a PC for specified research tasks in data processing, interactive discussions with other participants and supervising scientists, and, subsequent use of the processed data by the directing researchers.  The people-powered results and their derived conclusions are published as regular research reports in science journals.

What is Zooniverse? 

Zooniverse is the largest and most popular PC platform for people-based scientific research (see: https://www.zooniverse.org/about ).  Many thousands of people around the world already have worked on wide-ranging research projects with Zooniverse.  Some new projects are added each year, and the number of volunteer workers continues to grow.

Zooniverse is organized and run by the Citizen Science Alliance (see:  http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/structure.html ).  Its objective is to create online citizen science projects to involve the public in academic research (see: http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/philosophy.html ).  A listing of all their current research projects is available both at: http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/projects.html , and at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects? .

Zooniverse makes notable efforts in both scientific research and science education (see:  https://www.zooniverse.org/about/education ).  It has a number of good associated activities for the public: several discussion boards for conversations and discussions (e.g., Zooniverse Blog, Zooniverse Talk (i.e., covering all aspects of Zooniverse, and a good place to ask questions), Zooteach (i.e., lessons and resources for teachers of science, mathematics, humanities, and arts), Galaxy Zoo (i.e., research in astronomy by class groups of students), and, several others).   A gratis newsletter, Daily Zooniverse, about its activities is available at:  https:// dailyzooniverse.org/ .  Zooniverse involves people around the world, and some programs are made in collaboration with external science or educational institutions, such as the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (see:  http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/citizen-science/ ).

How can I join to work on scientific research with Zooniverse? 

Research with Zooniverse can involve youngsters or oldsters, and includes projects for all 3 main branches of science (biomedicine, chemistry, and physics).  Registration and sign-in boxes are located on home pages of Zooniverse and the Citizen Science Alliance (see earlier listings!). After you choose from the many available projects, you can begin right away!

What does people-powered research do for science and society? 

Several distinctive outcomes can result from citizen-based research. These collaborative efforts provide: (1) a practical means for data processing where it is necessary to utilize some huge number of research workers, (2) an excellent way to introduce more adults and young students to research and science, and (3) an effective approach to counter the utterly false depiction by Hollywood and TV of scientists as weird creatures from some other planet, and of scientific research as only an entertaining amusement.  All of these outcomes make Zooniverse and other people-based research activities very valuable for both science and society!

How does people-powered research differ from lab-based research? 

It is important for everyone to recognize that doing research work in a university or industrial laboratory is extremely different from participating as a research volunteer in a citizen science project.  Employment to work in a science lab often involves hands-on data production, use scientific instruments, and Q&A sessions about the results obtained; individual skill, judgment, productivity, and previous experience by the research worker all are prominent.  Working in a citizen science project involves handling recorded data (e.g., videos, images, historical records), interactive quality control, and further digital processing, all done with a PC while being supervised by scientists; individual dedication for time spent and adherence to research protocols are prominent.

Both types of participation in research provide valuable contributions to science.  Both involve real research, provide many opportunities to learn about science, and make it evident how research investigations are designed and conducted.  In my personal opinion, the volunteers working on people-powered research are analogous to part-time research technicians employed in a science lab; that is, design of the project, ongoing critical evaluation of its progress, using the results obtained to derive conclusions, and writing reports for publication all are provided by the scientist(s) directing the project, and do not directly involve any lab technician or volunteer worker.

Concluding remarks! 

People-powered research is a terrific way for serious individuals to learn more about science, research, and scientists.  Zooniverse and other programs make this opportunity readily available, and you can easily try it out!

 

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