Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan

From left to right: Citizen scientists at the Harbor Branch of the Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida.

From left to right: Citizen scientists at the Harbor Branch of the Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Scientists make up only a tiny percentage of the U.S. labor force. And they’re continually in need of funding for their research projects. But the Internet has created opportunities for non-scientists to participate in and contribute to scientific research. This is happening in many fields, most prominently in astronomy, ornithology and ecology. These volunteer researchers are called citizen scientists. And they’re helping real scientists achieve things they could not do on their own. For this month’s Environmental Outlook, we look at the growing importance of citizen scientists.


  • Sharman Apt Russell Author of "Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World," among other books; she teaches at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and Antioch University in Los Angeles.
  • Andrea Wiggins Assistant professor, University of Maryland, College of Information Studies.
  • David Bonter Assistant director of Citizen Science, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Elizabeth MacDonald Research astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; founder of Aurorasaurus, a citizen scientist project; affiliate research scientist at the New Mexico Consortium in Los Alamos.

Video: Hunting The Red-Bellied Tiger Beetle

Sharman Russell, a citizen scientist, stalks the fast, fierce, carnivorous Western red-bellied tiger beetle on the shores of Bill Evans Lake in southwestern New Mexico.

6 Ways To Become A Citizen Scientist

Guide To Citizen Science


  • 11:06:54

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News sitting in for Diane Rehm who's having a voice treatment. Scientific inquiry used to be the rarified realm of a highly educated elite at universities and government laboratories, but in the last decade, technology, from the internet to smartphones and personal GPS devices, has opened the door for anyone with an interest in science to get involved.

  • 11:07:17

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANFrom school children to scuba divers to bird watchers, grass roots volunteers are helping scientists gather vast sets of data that would be impossible to collect on their own. In the process, these citizen scientists are becoming more engaged in our natural world and more conscious of trends like climate change and their effect on communities. As part of our ongoing Environmental Outlook series, we're talking today about the role of citizen scientists.

  • 11:07:43

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me in the studio, Sharman Apt Russell, author of "Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World." And Andrea Wiggins of the University of Maryland College of Information Studies. We will be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour. Are you a backyard astronomer mapping galaxies?

  • 11:08:05

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANDo you help the Audubon Society track migrating birds? Are you monitoring air quality in your community? Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email at, join us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to both of you ladies.

  • 11:08:23


  • 11:08:23

    MS. ANDREA WIGGINSThank you.

  • 11:08:25

    LAKSHMANANSharman Russell, let me start with you. Give us a sense of the various kinds of citizen science projects that are happening now.

  • 11:08:32

    RUSSELLYou know, it's extraordinary. There's so many of them. They range from going out into the natural world and counting things and looking at things and just being more engaged in the world and then giving that information to, you know, national or state programs that form composite pictures of what you're looking at, tree frogs, birds, to a lot of online projects where you're using your human brain and eyes, which are actually better a pattern recognition than computers.

  • 11:09:05

    RUSSELLAnd you're looking at the enormous amount of images and data that we now have in the world and helping scientists analyze it.

  • 11:09:12

    LAKSHMANANAnd so Galaxy Zoo, Zooniverse, what are some of the other ones that...

  • 11:09:17

    RUSSELLOh, you know, all those images from the telescopes on earth and around, you know, out in the universe, cameras sweeping the ocean floor, images from Mongolia, satellite images from archeologists looking for cultural sites. You know, the amount of information we have in the world would be overwhelming, except for the wonderful, you know, new world of citizen scientists, hundreds and thousands of people all looking at the world more closely.

  • 11:09:48

    LAKSHMANANNow, we have a lot of these programs that Sharman is referring to on our website,, so if you're interested, you can look them up and find out more. You know, just yesterday, I did a Google search just to find out about citizen science projects in the news that day. And just yesterday, there were articles about citizen science projects here in Washington, D.C., in Lennox, Massachusetts, in Elmira, New York and so it feels like this is going on everywhere.

  • 11:10:13

    LAKSHMANANAnd, again, it was school children in one case. It was retirees in another. It was a whole host of people. So Sharman, tell us about your own experience tracking tiger beetles. That's your specialty.

  • 11:10:23

    RUSSELLRight. Yes, well, you know, I use citizen science. There are many reasons to do it, but it engages me so much more in the world in which I live in southwestern New Mexico. So I contacted an entomologist, a mentor, and said, is there some obscure tiger beetle I can study and he emailed back, you know, within hours. You know, he is sending people out into the world as his kind of, you know, casual graduate assistants, you know, helping fill in the map of tiger beetles.

  • 11:10:53

    RUSSELLSo there's a little blank spot on the world map of tiger beetles, which was the larval biology of the western red-belly tiger beetle. So I was...

  • 11:11:02

    LAKSHMANANOkay, that sounds pretty obscure.

  • 11:11:03

    RUSSELLPretty obscure, but I have to see that's a very charismatic insect. He's fierce, he's predacious, he and she, of course, beautiful. It's like anything. The more you get into that natural world, the more amazing and extraordinary you find it. So my mentor entomologist launched me on that project. I spent two field seasons chasing after tiger beetles, rearing up tiger beetles, documenting what they were doing, photographing them and learning more about them.

  • 11:11:34

    LAKSHMANANWow. I have to say that the one that appealed to me from learning all about this was something called Ancient Lives, which is this program that basically has 100,000 fragments of ancient Egyptian papyrus and you can use an online tool to transcribe and catalog Greek texts, including the works of Sophocles and Safa (sp?). Now that sounds pretty cool to me.

  • 11:11:56

    LAKSHMANANSo Andrea Wiggins, I want to ask you. One of the things you do is help determine what makes a good citizen science project. So what are the important elements of that?

  • 11:12:06

    WIGGINSWell, it's a complex undertaking to do one of these projects effectively and make it work for everybody. You need to design science that is achievable by whomever it is that you plan to work with so that adds a few constraints in terms of the way that you do the work and think about organizing it.

  • 11:12:24

    WIGGINSYou have to think about what technologies are gonna be effective and accessible for people and best support their interests. You have to think about how to feed back information to the right parties. So there are a lot of consideration in how these projects are set up. But what we look for in terms of success are some kinds of indicators of outcomes that people's goals are being achieved.

  • 11:12:42

    WIGGINSAnd the goals are so diverse. They can be looking for conservation impacts. They can be trying to support citizen action in their own local neighborhoods. They can be trying to gather the largest data set on biodiversity the world has ever seen. So there is no shortage of opportunities and there are a lot of interesting challenges to deal with in that space.

  • 11:13:04

    LAKSHMANANWell, we hear a lot about crowdsourcing information, you know, in everything from traffic reports, weather predictions, even citizen journalists who've used crowdsourcing, geospatial imagery to pinpoint, for example, terrorist hideouts. So explain to us, what does crowdsourcing mean when it relates to citizen science, Andrea?

  • 11:13:22

    WIGGINSSo we often debate this in the citizen science community because it's a blurry line. When is a group a crowd and at what scale do you start thinking about it as crowdsourcing? So in my head, I usually think about it in terms of the structure of the task. If it's a very simple task that just about anyone can do successfully, then it's probably in that crowdsourcing space.

  • 11:13:44

    WIGGINSOnce it becomes more complex and requires a couple of hours of training or really close attention or learning how to use field guides, then you might out of the crowdsourcing space. But then, again, you know, our definitions for crowdsourcing are still shifting in the research community so it's kind of hard to put a pin on that one.

  • 11:13:58

    LAKSHMANANWell, you also say that some of these require sort of more detailed knowledge, some training. I mean, clearly, Sharman Russell, you got some mentoring and you got the training you needed. Tell us about what you contributed to the understanding of the tiger beetle and what's the significance of what you found.

  • 11:14:14

    RUSSELLWell, right. The larval biology was unknown. No one knew what the first and second instar of this tiger beetle looked like. No one knew where the female went to lay her eggs and those are things that I discovered with the help of my mentors, rearing them up, describing these fierce little grubs and their -- how they metamorphosize into the adult, looking at where the borough holes were in the wild.

  • 11:14:46

    RUSSELLYou know, so adding to that particular knowledge of that one species.

  • 11:14:52

    LAKSHMANANRight. All right. Joining us by phone now from Ithaca, New York, is David Bonter. He's the assistant director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. David, thank you for joining us.

  • 11:15:03

    MR. DAVID BONTERIt's a pleasure to be here.

  • 11:15:04

    LAKSHMANANWell, David, I'm curious because the study of birds is actually, probably the oldest branch of citizen science as we know it, isn't it?

  • 11:15:11

    BONTERYeah, there have been people watching birds and reporting what they're seeing to help us better understand the natural world for over 100 years now. And here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, each year, we have more than 200,000 people who are helping us gain a better understanding for what's going on in their own backyards and their own neighborhoods, not just across the U.S. and North America, but now increasingly globally.

  • 11:15:34

    BONTERIt's been very exciting to engage people in this way.

  • 11:15:38

    LAKSHMANANWell, you're talking about the early 1900s. Are you referring to the Christmas bird count from the Audubon Society? And tell us about that. How does it work?

  • 11:15:44

    BONTERYeah, it really goes back to the Christmas bird count. It used to be a tradition at Christmastime for people to go out and shoot birds. And in the early 1900s, folks realized that this as causing a big problem. Populations were declining. And so a group of folks got together and said, well, instead of going out and shooting birds, let's make this a tradition to go out and count birds. And that's how the Christmas bird count began.

  • 11:16:04

    BONTERAnd it's one of the great resources that we have now for tracking changes in how many birds are out there and where those birds are located across North American. And from that, the whole suite of citizen science projects in Ornithology has really grown. We started here at Cornell back in the 1960s with a program called -- which is now called Nest Watch, which engages people to -- who are intrigued by bird nests to peek into the nest box and tell us what's going on with their bluebirds and their robins and help us better understand how birds are reproducing, which is very important information.

  • 11:16:42

    LAKSHMANANWell, it strikes me that the beauty of a study like this, like the Christmas bird count, is it allows individuals in their own backyards to collect data all across the country that there is no way that any one scientist could possibly collect on his or her own.

  • 11:16:56

    BONTERThat's right. And one of the really exciting aspects of this proliferation of citizen science is the diversity of projects out there in which people can become involved. Even within the community of people who are interested in birds, there are folks who are primarily interested in the birds of their backyard feeders. And for 30 years now, we've engaged people in a program called Project Feeder Watch to let us know what birds are coming to their backyard feeders and allowing us to see real changes in the distribution of birds in the U.S. and Canada.

  • 11:17:27

    BONTERSo Feeder Watch. EBird is another one that we have here at Cornell, which is now a global project and it's focused more on the hardcore birders, the folks who are really excited to take the weekend and go traveling to bird and they keep lists of everything they see and report. So they send that to us...

  • 11:17:44

    LAKSHMANANOkay. We will talk more about that when we come back. Coming up, more on how ordinary citizens are broadening our scientific understanding and I look forward to your questions and comments. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:01

    LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the growing role of citizen scientists in helping us understand our natural world. And with us from Ithaca, N.Y., is David Bonter, the assistant director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. David, before the break, we were talking about eBird. What is that program and how many people are involved? Who can join?

  • 11:20:24

    BONTEROh, pretty much anybody can join. It's now a global program. Tens of thousands of people are submitting their observations on a daily basis, creating this enormous dataset that's allowing us to track changes in what's going on in our natural world. And when you think about issues of climate change or habitat change, you really need information collected over big areas, right? Birds exist over huge areas. And doing a local study just won't get it done. And when you take a look at what we know about the influence of a changing climate on birds, for instance, that information comes from these large-scale initiatives like eBird, like the Christmas Bird Count, that engage the public.

  • 11:21:07

    LAKSHMANANWell, I actually want to ask you about that. What does the study of birds tell us about changes in the environment, about climate change? I've heard about this but give us the details.

  • 11:21:16

    BONTEROh, yeah. Birds are moving. They respond very quickly to even small changes in the environment. It's the whole, you know, canary in the coal mine.

  • 11:21:24

    LAKSHMANANQuite literally.

  • 11:21:26

    BONTERLiterally. And we're definitely seeing really rapid shifts in the distribution of birds. We have hummingbirds who are now overwintering in Southern Canada, in British Columbia, a species called the Anna's Hummingbird. Fifteen years ago, there were, you know, the northern limit of their winter range was in California. And we know this because we had people in FeederWatcher watching what's going on and reporting that to us.

  • 11:21:50

    BONTERHere in the Northeast, species like Northern Cardinals, a bird that's probably familiar to a lot of folks -- you go back 50, 70, 80 years, that's a bird of the Mid-Atlantic States and the Southeast. And now they're being found way up into Newfoundland. So birds are definitely moving in response to our changing world.

  • 11:22:09

    LAKSHMANANI mean, it's interesting. So they're a sort of first signal of changes, you know, and I imagine that that's something that climate science has taken a lot from. I'm wondering if the Internet has changed what ornithologists learn about birds.

  • 11:22:23

    BONTEROh, it's remarkable how quickly the Internet has revolutionized the field of citizen science. Information is immediate. Digital photography is another thing that's really changed how we do what we do in citizen science. Because people can snap a photo of a bird, not know what it is, you know, post it to one of these citizen science projects and, while the bird is still in their yard, have that identified and submit that observation to the scientific record. So it's been -- the technological revolution is making this accessible for everyone. And it's also allowing us to feedback information to the participants, which is really important.

  • 11:23:02

    BONTEROne of the important aspects of citizen science is that we mesh together the science with educational outreach. And folks really want to know what we're learning from the information that they're providing. And that's what we try to do here at Cornell.

  • 11:23:17

    LAKSHMANANAnd I guess part of that is also about giving them incentives and rewards for all the hard work they're doing. That they're learning about the animals in their backyard at the same time that they're feeding that information back to you.

  • 11:23:28

    BONTERYeah. What better way to help people learn about science than to engage them in the process? And we'd like to think that we're -- that we're increasing scientific literacy, which is one of the big problems facing our society today is this lack of understanding and acceptance of science. So we're trying to get people involved in the process.

  • 11:23:47

    LAKSHMANANDavid Bonter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Thank you for joining us.

  • 11:23:51

    BONTERMy pleasure.

  • 11:23:52

    LAKSHMANANAndrea Wiggins, you are an information scientist. So one of the key things here is of course the credibility of information. That's something people are always asking about. So what about the accuracy of information collected by amateurs?

  • 11:24:06

    WIGGINSWell, there have been study after study that have shown that the public can do just as good of a job as professionals when the activities are designed right. And when we did a survey a few years ago of citizen science projects, we found that they were averaging at least five data quality strategies for every project out there, ensuring data quality at every stage of the project participation. There's also very low incidence of intentional malfeasance and bad data being submitted -- very, very low incidence. But there are issues with bias, for example.

  • 11:24:39

    WIGGINSSo people live in cities. That means most data are collected near cities. There's a population center bias there. You're almost always going to have holes in your data for North and South Dakota because the population is relatively low there. However, we've got new analytical tools that really are allowing us to use the data that we've got to infer and fill in those blanks a little more effectively. And there are also efforts to target data collection in some of the areas where it's really lacking.

  • 11:25:05

    WIGGINSOne of the other challenges is getting people to sample randomly and to report negative data. If there's nothing, people don't want to report that. But that's often the most important information.

  • 11:25:15

    LAKSHMANANAnd so you have to do things actually, I would think, to encourage people. If you say, you know, if you're trying to look at the dying bee, for example, declining bee population. If you're asking someone to stand in their backyard and see whether a bee comes, if no bee comes, they're probably going to get discouraged and not necessarily report that.

  • 11:25:32

    WIGGINSAbsolutely. And that is one of the major challenges because finding out where the spots are that the bees are not pollinating is incredibly important to understanding ecosystem health across the landscape.

  • 11:25:42

    LAKSHMANANYeah. I think with the accuracy question, I'm also thinking that even school children can do some things with the same accuracy as a trained scientist, whether it's measuring the outside of a tree or counting rings in a trunk or something like that. But when it comes to a more qualitative decision about that same piece of information, I mean, harder for a school child to say, is this tree alive or dead, right?

  • 11:26:06

    WIGGINSThat might be more challenging. Usually the tasks are scoped in a way that lets you identify between a small selection of species. It's narrowed down a little bit. But if you're trying to identify from all of the birds in the world which one is in front of you, that becomes a somewhat more complex task.

  • 11:26:22

    LAKSHMANANSharman, I want to ask you, in your work with professional scientists, what are some of the things that researchers have done for you to help optimize the value of your work to make sure that you're working in tandem with them?

  • 11:26:36

    RUSSELLWell, we communicate a lot by email. We communicate a lot by phone. Sometimes they'd come visit me. You know, it was an atmosphere of collegiality. What I have really found is how much scientists understand what the citizen scientist can bring to them, especially if they work in the field of conservation or environment, especially if they want to see good policies enacted in terms of their discipline, if they want to see a public educated about science. We, citizen scientists bring so much more to the table than just the accuracy. You know, we bring our citizenship. And I don't mean citizen of a country.

  • 11:27:20

    RUSSELLI mean citizen of a place, citizen of the world, citizen of a community with that. We bring our sense of responsibility towards that community and that place. We bring a sense of empowerment more and more because we expect our data to be somehow used. We expect to see, you know, our hard work in a public and in a school system and in a world that engages in good science.

  • 11:27:46

    LAKSHMANANSo there's accountability too. It's that sort of feedback loop and, you know, the insistence that that be included.

  • 11:27:51

    RUSSELLAbsolutely, yeah.

  • 11:27:53

    LAKSHMANANJoining us by phone now from Maryland is Elizabeth McDonald. She's a research astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. And she's also founder of Aurorasaurus, a citizen scientist project. Liz, thanks so much for joining us.

  • 11:28:08

    MS. ELIZABETH MACDONALDHi. Thank you for having me.

  • 11:28:09

    LAKSHMANANPlease tell us about Aurorasaurus. What is it? It sounds like a new dinosaur.

  • 11:28:14

    MACDONALDIt's not a dinosaur. We've just heard about the eBird global program. And I'm going to shift gears from bird watching to hunting the beautiful but rare Northern and Southern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. These are some of the most beautiful sights you can see in the world caused by particles from space which rain down the Earth's magnetic-field lines and light up our upper atmosphere. This complex process is driven by the sun, a long way away, so it's very hard to predict. Imagine if you could get a real-time alert for your location that people are seeing Auroras near you and contribute your own observations to that citizen science community and help scientists understand this complex behavior.

  • 11:29:08

    MACDONALDI study heliophysics and am the founder of Our team has recently launched Apple and Android apps and a new website to do just that and more at a large scale. So we are trying to encourage people to sign up and maximize their chance to see this really rare phenomenon with the new mobile technologies that we have now.

  • 11:29:36

    LAKSHMANANWe have links to Aurorasaurus on our website, And there are some really, really lovely and striking pictures. But I want to know, what are the practical applications of what you're learning about Auroras? It's nice to engage people but what are you getting out of it as a scientist?

  • 11:29:54

    MACDONALDWell this is one where we are getting a lot out of people's observations. We're in a very small field, a data-starved field, because space is very large. And during rare events, when the Auroras can be seen further south -- there was a really large event on St. Patrick's Day -- that's where we have the least data about the behavior of the Auroras during these large events. And so what we're doing with this data, people's observations are comparing to the very course models of Auroral activity that we currently have and looking to improve those models for scientific use as well as the public's use.

  • 11:30:40

    MACDONALDAnd some of the scientific use relating to Auroras and these large events, there can be -- Auroras are basically large electrical currents coming from space. And there can be effects on Earth's systems such as power grids and pipelines and things like that, satellite systems as well. And so these contributions to helping to understand the Aurora also help to understand the larger space plasma environment.

  • 11:31:13

    LAKSHMANANThe space plasma environment. Okay, that's why you're an astrophysicist and I'm not. All right, well tell us how much of this, you know, seeing when and where the Aurora Borealis can be seen, how much of this is really just about getting non-scientists more interested in science?

  • 11:31:29

    MACDONALDThat is also another goal of our project. Our project is very interdisciplinary between the space-science applications and the educational applications. We have a lot of different resources on our website for people to learn more about Auroras, as well as contribute their observations.

  • 11:31:52

    LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan. You're listing to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. So Liz MacDonald, what are some of the other citizen science projects that deal with astronomy?

  • 11:32:15

    MACDONALDYeah. There's several projects in the category under the Zooniverse Program. And those all involve studying objects in the sky with different space and ground-based telescope resources and using people to help classify those objects and really help understand what they are. There's (sic) citizen scientists who have made discoveries of previously unknown objects from the Zooniverse Projects called Galaxy Zoo. And there's also a project right now called Disk Detective that NASA is sponsoring. And they're wanting -- getting a lot of volunteers looking at data of dust and planetary disks and trying to identify candidates for further study where we might find planets -- exoplanets around stars in the Universe.

  • 11:33:20

    LAKSHMANANLiz, really briefly tell us, one form of citizen science which has probably gotten more press attention is this part about people using their computers and looking for extraterrestrial life. Tell us about that. Does that fall into citizen science?

  • 11:33:35

    MACDONALDYeah, the SETI Project, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent, I think, is an older project -- probably one of the first projects that came online. And people used their spare computing power, signed up for the project and their computers at home could help crunch through all of the data that we have looking for rare signals that might indicate life.

  • 11:34:07

    LAKSHMANANPretty interesting. We'd love to see what comes out of that. All right. Liz MacDonald of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 11:34:16

    MACDONALDThank you.

  • 11:34:17

    LAKSHMANANWe have a comment here that was posted to Facebook by Darin Lee who says, citizen science is not free science. Significant resources are still needed to do it at a level that is meaningful to both the scientists and the volunteers who want to learn how their efforts have helped. Andrea Wiggins, can you respond to that?

  • 11:34:35

    WIGGINSThat is absolutely true. So one of the striking moments I had recently was picking up Sharman Russell's book and seeing a description of a talk I gave where I likened free data to free puppies. Basically, you know, you can get a lot of free data from people but that really isn't free. There are costs of ownership. You have to provide the infrastructure for people. You have to provide the right resources. A human touch is required. You have to communicate and work with people or they'll walk away. They've got no reason to stay if you're not being nice. So that requires a little bit of different effort than the typical scientist is trained to do.

  • 11:35:09

    RUSSELLAnd it's not just about being nice of course. It's about figuring out a way to integrate their efforts in a way that's meaningful for the university or the laboratory that's using it, right? I mean, that also falls...

  • 11:35:19


  • 11:35:20 the professional scientists.

  • 11:35:22

    WIGGINSAbsolutely. So there are some really interesting challenges with establishing data quality and evaluating it and demonstrating it for everyone else. But by and large we're finding that these data are very, very useful for generating scientific findings when they're being managed properly.

  • 11:35:37

    LAKSHMANANSharman Russell, how has the Internet changed the way that you or the public in general interact with professional scientists?

  • 11:35:44

    RUSSELLWell, the ability to join in to these regional, state and national programs and to put in your data, and then almost immediately, you know, to see how your data is interacting with what thousands of other people are doing in terms of -- I'm in a program called Nature's Notebook. And I go out and I look at the Phenology or the lifecycle of a Desert Willow and a Honey Mesquite and a Yucca for example. And I can input what they're doing, when those plants are flowering, when they're fruiting and put it on my data -- my userfriendly, and I can see what is going all over the Southwest in terms of those same plants.

  • 11:36:27

    RUSSELLSo I have that connection. I'm part of a larger team. I think that's part of what's happening is you're part -- you're joining a community of other people who love Desert Willows or who love dragonflies or who love, you know, tree frogs or who are deeply interested in climate change or in protein synthesis, or whatever citizen science project discipline you're engaged in, suddenly you're connected to all of those other people who are also passionate about that.

  • 11:36:54

    LAKSHMANANWe'll be taking a short break. Coming up your calls and your questions on citizen science. Are you a backyard astronomer? Do you help track migrating birds? Are you monitoring air quality with a sensor on your smartphone? Call in and tell us. And we will be right back. Stay tuned.

  • 11:40:00

    LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. We are talking about the role of citizen science in helping us understand our natural world, and I'd like to go to the calls now. We've got Kim in Norman, Oklahoma. Kim, go ahead, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:17

    KIMYes, yes, this is, I'm in Norman, Oklahoma, and I'm the project scientist for the MPING Citizen Science Project, it's Meteorological Phenomenon Identification Near the Ground. And that's a pretty major citizen science project here at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

  • 11:40:34

    LAKSHMANANSo tell us a little bit about how it works. And how do you get the citizens involved?

  • 11:40:39

    KIMWell, it's done off of an app, off of smartphones, and right now there's apps for Apple and Android, and we have, early on in the project, in February, I think it was 2013, I was interviewed on NPR, All Things Considered, and that led to a big spike in interest because people heard about it, but almost all of it has been via social media and people who are interested in weather. And what it does is people report to us, via this app, what kind of precipitation is falling because we're using that to develop precipitation algorithms for the new dual-pole Doppler radars that were, the installation was completed a couple of years ago, and also to better forecast precipitation type with our numerical forecast models.

  • 11:41:39

    LAKSHMANANAnd the contributions that the citizen scientists are making are making that possible because you couldn't otherwise collect data on that scale?

  • 11:41:46

    KIMAbsolutely, there is no other way we could possibly collect data on that scale. We started it December 19, 2012, and as of today, we're just shy of 850,000 submissions.

  • 11:41:59

    LAKSHMANANAll right, well, that's quite a lot. Thank you so much for calling in, Kim. Sharman Russell, can you take his point? What about also the educational value of what's being done? You know, the community is contributing, but also the community is learning.

  • 11:42:12

    RUSSELLYeah, I don't really think that can be understated. I've taken a lot of citizen science projects into classrooms. I remember one third-grade classroom in Deming, New Mexico, it's along the border of Mexico and the United States. This was the Mastodon Matrix Program, in which they gave us a kilo of soil surrounding an excavated mastodon, and our job was to pick through it. And, you know, the little, the miniature paleontologists with their toothpicks finding the snails and the clams and their excited cries.

  • 11:42:45

    RUSSELLAnd the excitement in that room, the thrill that they got doing this work, I think it's going to ripple throughout their life. I think it's going to engage them more in science connected to the mastodon, who is extinct, the wild elephant, who is going extinct in their lifetime. You know, I don't think, it's incalculable the kind of effect these projects are going to have on these children.

  • 11:43:08

    LAKSHMANANYou know, we got a tweet from Char Shrok (sp?) who says "students in our third-grade classrooms use the Tulip Project from and the kids are doing authentic work, and they enjoy that. They feel like they're actually contributing to something." We have an email from Lisa in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who says that she's an avid participant in several citizen science projects. She provides data on birds through eBird, and she's reporting on two Eastern bluebirds that have made a nest in one of her own nesting boxes, and she uses NestWatch, which David was talking about, for this.

  • 11:43:41

    LAKSHMANANShe also counts herring for the town of Plymouth by recording air and water temperature and weather and counting the herring that exit the fish ladder. All right, this is really interesting, I think, Andrea, because it brings up the whole question about some basic training. And with a little bit of training, how can a citizen scientist provide some data that they might not otherwise have?

  • 11:44:03

    WIGGINSWell, essentially we have the ability to gather data across greater scales and time periods than ever before, once we've got people engaged across whatever geographic scope we're looking at. And the eBird project that was, has been mentioned several times is a great example of how that's been turned around into really impactful results. They use the eBird data with the California Nature Conservancy for a program they call Bird Returns, and they're creating temporary rest stops for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway by strategically flooding rice fields in the right place at the right time, and they're able to target that because of that eBird data.

  • 11:44:39

    WIGGINSIt's like "Moneyball" for conservation. In the first year, they flooded over 10,000 acres, and they hosted over 220,000 birds. It's more than 10 times what they would usually see. Up to 20 percent of some of those migrating populations, of all the birds that go up that flyway stopped in those fields because they had been flooded, and it was much lower cost.

  • 11:44:58

    LAKSHMANANSo this is an actual, concrete change, a policy change.

  • 11:45:00


  • 11:45:01

    LAKSHMANANThat took place as a result of citizen science. Are there other examples where citizen science has made that kind of a difference?

  • 11:45:07

    WIGGINSAbsolutely. I mean, I could go on all day. A really nice one, in air quality, comes from Western New York, in the town of Tonawanda, which is an industrial area, where a community-based group started collecting air samples for analysis because they were concerned about odors and so on. That led to an investigation from the New York Department of Environment and Conservation, that study supported by the EPA. They found high levels of benzene. That led to compliance monitoring and regulatory actions, and they found a 66 percent decrease in the benzene levels afterward.

  • 11:45:39

    WIGGINSSo it was because these people got off their rear ends, gathered up some buckets of air and sent them off for analysis that they were able to have a real impact at home, in their own backyards.

  • 11:45:51

    LAKSHMANANWell, let's hear a little bit more about what people are doing. Our listeners, we've got Ken from Versailles, Ohio. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 11:45:57

    KENHi, Indira, thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:46:00


  • 11:46:02

    KENAnd once again you guys have got a great subject. But my son is a brilliant senior survey engineering student at New Mexico State University, and this past couple years, he's been working with NASA. And what they did was when Apollo 16 was circling the moon, it took pictures of the dark side of the moon. Each picture is 1.8 megapixels. And he is plotting positions on the dark side of the moon so that NASA can put together a 3-D project for some sort of tutor program that they have.

  • 11:46:33

    KENBut the big point is that he got paid for it, as a student in college, and it came in handy. And I was just curious if there were other projects out there and other types of education that pay and would help students get through college and at the same time, you know, providing help in a citizen scientist kind of way. And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 11:46:53

    LAKSHMANANThank you. Thank you. Andrea Wiggins.

  • 11:46:56

    WIGGINSWell, there are some opportunities where there could be pay coming from it, but often people are using these opportunities as a way to learn the ropes and get their foot in the door and get some real-world experience in the sciences, if there's a career interest or a learning interest involved. So it might lead to something down the road, but in terms of, like, you know, money for your summer job, I wouldn't always count on it. The economics of it are part of the reason that people are turning to volunteers.

  • 11:47:23

    LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take another call, from Cheryl in Anderson, Indiana. Cheryl, you're on the air.

  • 11:47:29

    CHERYLWell, thank you for taking my call. I am a retired high school science teacher and a longtime environmental volunteer and advocate. My point is how science illiteracy is misinforming so many of our decision-makers. You know, we have a situation in Central Indiana, we have a beautiful free-flowing stream, the White River. It is bordered on each side by over 1,000 acres of mature woodland, which is right now giving rest to our tropical migratory birds, serving a lot of other functions for the environment.

  • 11:48:06

    CHERYLAnd our local team of economic developers, the Chamber of Commerce and a lot of local businesses think that if they would dam this river and create a reservoir, they could stimulate economic development in our former General Motors factory towns that have lost so much. Teams, our science team includes engineers and wildlife biologists and a hydro-geologist, naturalists, archaeologists, the gentleman that runs the idea lab at Ball State. These folks are all saying the science is not there to build this reservoir. The soils are glacial outwash. They are very highly erodible and porous.

  • 11:48:50

    CHERYLThis reservoir would flood a former toxic industrial dump that General Motors factories used for years before EPA was even in existence...

  • 11:49:00

    LAKSHMANANOkay, Cheryl, thank you so much. So we, you know, we get, this is a question that I'm sure we hear from many parts of the country. Sharman Russell, what about the role of citizen scientists in educating their own policymakers at a local level, and how much success have they actually had in stopping projects that might be environmentally questionable, like the one Cheryl talks about?

  • 11:49:21

    RUSSELLWell, I think one of the most exciting things about citizen science is how much it segues into environmental activism because once people get outside and start looking around their parks and their forest and their streams, they start seeing loss, they start seeing diminishment, they start seeing some degradation. And again, as citizens they want some action.

  • 11:49:46

    RUSSELLYou know, I'm going to turn the question a little bit because I understand exactly this caller's frustration. It's certainly happening in my part of the country, too. It's sometimes hard to change the minds of an adult. And so I'm going to go back to that idea of having that science in the classrooms for those high school students, for those future voters, future environmentalists, for them to start seeing science at that age.

  • 11:50:14

    RUSSELLAnd one of the exciting things that I think about it is that citizen science really is so inherently democratic. It crosses the boundaries of age. It crosses the boundaries of economic status. It crosses the boundaries of social status and of education. And the children I was talking about in Deming, New Mexico, some of them were the children of farm workers, all of them qualified for free lunch and free breakfast, but they had all the smarts and the enthusiasm to understand this at the age of eight.

  • 11:50:44

    LAKSHMANANIt does feel as if schools have made a concerted effort to integrate more hands-on science, I mean, certainly much more than when I was a kid in public schools. I now see children, you know, doing recycling projects. My own child is, you know, planting seeds and raising chickens and doing all sorts of things that, you know, certainly we were not encouraged to do. So I think it seems like that's also again part of the back and forth that's being created.

  • 11:51:10

    LAKSHMANANWe have a tweet here from Patience Burke (sp?) , who says, to what extent has the citizen science movement expanded as a result of funding cuts, or is this really just a matter of citizen interest? Andrea Wiggins?

  • 11:51:22

    WIGGINSWell, funding cuts probably do play into it, to some extent. But as an earlier comment revealed, it's not free. So you can't really, you can do this on a shoestring, but you can't do this large-scale science on a shoestring. So I think there is some impetus from budget cuts, but even more is from the new opportunities that technologies make available to more and more people and the increasing visibility.

  • 11:51:45

    LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and this is "The Diane Rehm Show." Andrea, what does it actually take for a citizen scientist to, you know, to contribute in a useful way? Because certainly you don't want just people out there, you know, counting birds or mapping stars and just doing it as a hobby. I mean, I guess on one level, that's fine, too, to just have it as a hobby. But if you want it to be useful for scientific research, how does it need to be corralled and quantified?

  • 11:52:12

    WIGGINSWell, basically a coordinated effort is needed if you want to do some of the slightly larger-scale science. I'm all for independent investigation, but if we really want to have that bigger impact, joining the team, as Sharman was mentioning, is really the way to go. And there are so many citizen science projects out there. There's something for practically every interest.

  • 11:52:28

    WIGGINSI would start at They have a wonderful catalogue of projects that anyone can look up what their interest area is and find something that might fit.

  • 11:52:36

    LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take a call from Kate in Columbia, Maryland. Kate, go ahead, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:41

    KATEHi, so everything I've been hearing on the radio so far has talked about things that you can observe in the natural world. But something that I've taken part in since 2010 is called the Maryland Influenza Tracking Survey. It's really simple. All you do is log in once a week, and you answer two yes-or-no questions about you or individual members of your family. And it helps researchers and public health agencies in Maryland determine where pockets of flu activity are.

  • 11:53:09

    LAKSHMANANWell, that is really interesting, thank you, Kate. And, you know, that brings us to the other question of, to what extent are citizen scientists participating in medical research. Andrea?

  • 11:53:18

    WIGGINSWell, I was just recently at a workshop held by the National Institutes for Health on the ethics, legal and social implications of citizen science in the biomedical arena. And they're understandably slow to enter that space, but there are some really exciting endeavors on the horizon. People are mapping the connections of the optical neurons in the iWire Project. People are learning about their microbiome and swabbing their belly buttons and finding out what bacteria live there, which is perfectly normal, by the way.

  • 11:53:44

    LAKSHMANANWell, those all seem like fairly, you know, benign projects. But aren't there also some dangers in involving citizens, citizen scientists in medical research?

  • 11:53:53

    WIGGINSThere could be. It would depend on the way things are designed, and there are so many protections for public participants in medical research of any kind. But that's one reason that they're taking it slow and being very, very considerate about what the best way to involve people is.

  • 11:54:09

    LAKSHMANANWell, you can find links a lot of these different citizen science projects on our website, Let's take another call from Waitman (sp?) in Richmond, Virginia. Go ahead, you're on the air.

  • 11:54:23

    WAITMANHi, thanks for having me.

  • 11:54:23

    LAKSHMANANGo ahead, please.

  • 11:54:26

    WAITMANYeah, I just wanted to point, a little background, I am a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies currently, and I will soon become the director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond.

  • 11:54:37


  • 11:54:37

    WAITMANAnd, thank you, and I really, I'm really impressed by this panel. And I want to kind of get their feelings for how we apply this to the softer sciences because a lot of the things that have been discussed so far are very hard science, where the data is at least somewhat clear. And we've seen, in my neck of the world, in the Holocaust and genocide studies, that there's been some work with crowdsourcing just in general, with people dealing with history and compiling history on a crowdsourced massive level.

  • 11:55:12

    WAITMANYou know, how do we set up programs that maintain data integrity while also understanding that there are qualitative decisions that need to be made at perhaps lower levels than they do when you are tracking some of the things that always...

  • 11:55:31

    LAKSHMANANOkay, thank you, Waitman. Andrea, can you take that? As an information scientist, how do you apply these sort of rigorous models of, you know, collection of data to the humanities?

  • 11:55:42

    WIGGINSWell, that's a great question. We're actually co-hosting a big workshop on this at the Maryland campus starting tomorrow, on crowdsourcing across the disciplines. There's a lot of work on digitizing materials, historical records, texts and other material, for the humanities scholarship and for understanding history and for understanding some of the social patterns in our past.

  • 11:56:06

    LAKSHMANANWell, thank you all so much for a fascinating conversation. citizen scientist Sharman Russell, you can read her book about the tiger beetle. Information scientist Andrea Wiggins, astrophysicist Liz MacDonald and ornithologist David Bonter. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks so much for joining us.

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