Ray Kurzweil

Darlene Cavalier

Science Cheerleader

Citizen Scientists: Disrupting Science... In A Good Way!

The field of citizen science is experiencing an unprecedented boom in popularity. Impressive numbers of people are inclined to “get their hands dirty” with science, either through recreational activities or full-fledged research projects. To take just a few examples, in the U.S. alone there are 48 million birders, half a million amateur astronomers, and another half a million volunteers who monitor the quality of our waterways. A few years ago when a citizen science project known as “Galaxy Zoo” put out a call for volunteers to analyze telescopic images online, nearly 150,000 people signed up. Not to mention the 90 million Americans who like to work on do-it-yourself projects and the newly christened “Generation Jones,” that sizable hunk of Baby Boomers who yearn to participate and be active.

And there's no shortage of opportunities awaiting them now that many--but not all--scientists are taking citizen scientists seriously. “Snow Tweets” enables participants to use Twitter to add their current snow depth measurements to a real-time global map. “Firefly Watch” enlists citizen scientists of all ages to monitor the presence of backyard fireflies; their data is passed along to entomologists studying the insects’ habits. In “Project Gravestone,” volunteers gauge the weathering of tomb stones as an indicator of the acidity of rainwater. And “Solar Stormwatch,” a cousin to “Galaxy Zoo,” asks participants to help track explosions on the sun and track them across space to provide warnings for astronauts and data for solar scientists.

So who are these so-called Citizen Scientists and how are they both aiding and disrupting traditional scientific research? Cavalier, aka The Science Cheerleader, and cofounder of ScienceForCitizens.net, will address the scientific and societal implications of Citizen Science. Highlights of her talk will include, but not be limited to:

Demographics: Citizen scientists are, literally, everywhere, and they come in all different stripes. What defines them are their particular fields of interest. Star-gazers and water quality monitors, for example, are two different breeds.

Motivations: Why would anyone volunteer to spend weekends knee-deep in cold water to track sea turtle eggs, for example? There are three common motivators almost all citizen scientists share.

Data: How are scientists using this wealth of data? Fragmentation is still a challenge but some institutions have banded together to collaborate and share data.

Future implications:We will likely see an entire academic discipline devoted to the field of Citizen Science or Participatory Research. While practitioners define and refine "best practices" the citizen scientists themselves are beginning to migrate from "data collectors" to policy advocates. Can/should their collective powers be harnessed to shape public policies?

Darlene Cavalier is the founder of Science Cheerleader.com, a blog that promotes the involvement of citizens in science and science-related policy. She is also the cofounder of ScienceForCitizens.net, a major multi-functional Web site that encourages and enables lay people to learn about, participate in, and contribute to science through recreational activities as well as formal research. Cavalier held executive positions at Walt Disney Publishing and worked at Discover Magazine for more than a decade. She was the principal investigator of a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant applied to promote basic research through partnerships with Disney and ABC TV.

Cavalier is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader and holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied the role of the citizen in science. She is a writer and senior advisor to Discover Magazine, on the Steering Committee for Science Debate and is organizing an effort to launch the first-of-its-kind distributed network to support citizen engagement in technology assessments for federal, state and local policymakers. Details to be announced at a press event on 4/28/10 at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. Her dedication, impact, and innovative approaches have been featured in The Scientist, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Newsweek.com, Discover Magazine, Fox National Headline News, and many other national media outlets in the U.S. and internationally. She and her husband live in Philadelphia with their four young children.