Sunday, December 14, 2014

Debating the Roles of Scientific Utility and Personal Curiosity in Citizen Science Projects

As detailed last week, reviewing hundreds of science-based projects on the most popular crowdfunding has taught me a lot about how citizen science is viewed by the public.  I've also gained some insights into what makes a successful crowdfunding campaign and an unsuccessful one.  More on that in two weeks.  But it's also given me a lot of insight into the different types of citizen science as viewed from outside our field, and outside academia.  Perfect for better understanding the business of citizen science and how citizen scientists can take advantage of it.

The first of these is an increased appreciation for the role of curiosity in citizen science projects.  This has led me to begin considering a new model for classifying citizen science projects that shows some promise for better understanding people's interest in citizen science and identifying new opportunities for expanding the field. Applying it to our crowdfunding research and comparing the results with results from some other models we've used may provide a lot of insight.  But before going further a little background might be useful.

Some of the most important insights came from the various emails and comments I received to those posts.  One person in particular asked about the uBiome project that was funded through IndieGoGo back in early 2013.  This was quite a success story. While only requesting $100,000 they quickly doubled it and have since earned (since the campaign is still open) over $300,000.  All in addition to money they earn from sales directly from their web site.

This is a very exciting science project that has developed kits for genetically identifying the bacteria growing in each person's gut; these are sold to the public that send in their samples and receive back results on bacteria in their own bodies.  So uBiome was not just funded by the public, but it's main sales audience is the general public and their research data is derived from the public participants. It's a very good science project. But is it a citizen science project?

On the one hand the Indiegogo description itself talks a lot about citizen science and using the data as part of a large citizen science project.  In fact this brought it to my attention from the very beginning. It is also highly dependent on public participation as the primary data source that fuels their scientific research, and then returns that analyzed data back to the user.  So in some ways a user is running a scientific test on their own bodies and getting results.  After aggregating all these results uBiome will be mining the data for important and novel research on the role of gut bacteria on human health.  All of these make this look like a citizen science project at first glance, and I even included similar types of projects (Genographic Project and Wisdom Panel) which do similar things with human and pet ancestry.

On the other hand, when looking closely at the citizen science definitions I initially couldn't fit this in. It was not organized or designed by a private is run by a for-profit company managed by Ph.D. Scientists. It does not involve citizens in the hypothesis creation or sample analysis. Even the larger data analysis is not available to public participants. They just receive their own results.  Once received, this information does not have any practical utility or potential impact on the citizen scientist.  They can't (yet) use if to make medical decisions like a genetic test would, or learn about their ancestry; it's main use instead is satisfying intellectual and personal curiosity.  The closest they can come is ordering multiple kits and tracking changes over time (or as variables like diet change) That's not a bad thing, but again it does not support the "citizen science" label.

The final argument is that by signing up and sending in their samples, the public is acting as a data collecting "contributor" in much the same way they would send in bird sightings or amateur sky observations.  This is one of the primary ways citizen scientists get their start and is the base of my levels of citizen science involvement model. And it's not just a passive involvement; in many cases participants can be very passionate about those projects and devote significant time and money to the project.  There's a great example in this week's most recent issue of Science magazine, where the author (who has written often about citizen science projects in the past) get's involved for the first time with a genetic testing project.  But it's not just for curiosity' among the many genes she is having tested include many cancer indicators that may potentially run in her family.  So she can use that data to influence her own medical choices and inform the rest of her family who may also share those genes.  Citizen science is not just a passing fancy for her; it could save her life. So this level of involvement remains an important way to participate.

There is one other important side issue here. If a person's sole contribution to a project is as a human subject, is it still citizen science. I personally would argue "No", but for variety of ethical reasons (including some with my current employer), I can't fully go into it.  But it would be a great topic for further discussion.

Ultimately they are about satisfying a personal curiosity but not in breaking new research ground. And that's not a bad thing. So I'm adding uBiome back to my Citizen Science Crowdfunding list and re-evaluating some others I'd previously not included.  So thank you all who brought these issues to my attention.

Going through all the background now leads us back to the main question..."How do we classify projects that are 'Kind of' citizen science?"  One possible solution I'm considering is looking at the scientific "Utility" of the expected research results, and measuring that utility by analyzing each project's expected breadth, utility, and novelty.  This is very much a work in progress, but in other words, 1) for academic or theoretical research, will the results be broadly applicable to many issues and the scientific community, or will it be specific to a certain person or problem; 2) for non-theoretical research,is the data useful to an individual or answering a specific problem, or is it mainly to satisfy curiosity; and 3) has this research data been created before or is new ground being broken with the research.  Those three factors should help us separate projects into the following four categories:

  1. Pure Research for Scientific Advancement: Addresses an issue of theoretical, academic, or general scientific interest.
  2. Applied Research and Analysis: Uses scientific research techniques to address a specific real-world problem.
  3. Curiosity Research: Uses scientific research techniques to answer an unknown question with little direct practical impact. On the citizen scientist?
  4. Scientific Activities:  These do not generate any new information and the results do not have any direct application; instead the activity has educational or non-practical goals.

It's important to note that these classifications by no means indicates "better" or "worse", or that one is more "worthy" than another. Instead I think it's useful in helping people expand their definitions by providing a structure to view these alternative models with.  I also think we can build this out and find some intriguing insights on things that work best in one model but less well in others.  So it should have a practical purpose. And hey, creating models is academically interesting too.

Will this model be useful?  Am I making distinctions that don't exist?  Are my definitions to narrow or are my biases showing?  Let's test the model and find out.  I'll start working on that now and present the results in a future post.  But if you have your own thoughts let me know in the comments below.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Citizen Science Holiday Buying Guide - 2014

The Holidays are back. It's a time when we reflect on the many things we are thankful for and look ahead to what the next year will bring. At the top of the list are my wife and child, and the joys of family. But I'm also thankful for the wonder of science, and the chance to play a direct part in it through citizen science.  These are fantastic opportunities I love to share. So if you want to share them with your friends and family this Christmas, or if you have a loved on who enjoys citizen science as much as I do, this 2014 Holiday Gift Guide is for you.

As an added bonus, many of the gifts below were created or initially designed as part of a successful crowdfunding campaign.  Not only will your loved ones enjoy their gift, but you are also encouraging future citizen science projects.  Sounds like a win-win to me!

Read All About It: Want to teach a loved one why citizen science is so exciting, or do you want to help them understand your love of it instead?  Either way, a gift of Diary of a Citizen Scientist is the perfect gift.  It will teach them what citizen science is and help discover many new projects you may not have known existed.  Bu more importantly, you get a first-hand view of an individual woman's journey into the field as she digs into the ecology near her home, finds out there are many unanswered questions about some of the local inhabitants (tiger beetles), and works with some professional researchers to answer those questions through patient lab technique and field work.  It's a personal recommendation of mine, and you can read a short review and excerpts from the book here.  In fact I'm picking it up for a family member as well.

Trace Your Roots: Citizen science doesn't have to be cold and academic.  It can also impact our lives as well as tell us more about who we are.  Products like the National Geographic Genographic Project can take your DNA and help discover where you come from and how your ancestors may have lived.  The project database is built on previous participants as well as the data you submit yourself, so it continually learns more.  Feel free to check them out directly or look at my personal experience with the project here. Similarly, for you pet lovers, Wisdom Panel 2.0 can help you figure out which breeds have contributed to your dog's pedigree and where they came from as well.  All it takes is a cheek swab.

Do-it-Yourself Biology: Not content to just send samples to a lab and wait for the analysis?  Want to do your own sampling, your own testing, and your own analysis (like a true citizen scientist)? Then the tools are coming for you. It used to be that setting up your own lab for testing was prohibitively difficult and expensive, but the DIYBio community has helped change all that. So for gift ideas think of giving some personal lab equipment. For example, the miniPCR ( for DNA testing. Isolating DNA can be done at home (examples abound on the Internet) but now you need to amplify that signal. The miniPCR can do that in a machine a tenth (or more) of the cost of industrial machines. So whether your loved one has a home lab or is working again community Biospace, this can be the perfect gift.  Available for pre-order now.

3-D Printing: The Maker movement is one of the newest additions to the citizen science community, and in many ways they embody the future of the field.  So what better way to keep up than with your own home 3D printer, such as the MakerBot Replicator.  Design your own creations or download one of the many publicly available designs for a quick start. The only downside is that at $2899 it's not cheap. For a more affordable alternative, check out the 3Doodler Enthusiast Bundle for $170. It's a pen-based 3D printing tool complete with starter kit of supplies.  A great way to get your loved ones feet wet before taking the big step to a full-blown printer.

Wildlife Photography: Birdwatching is one of the oldest citizen science fields and one that remains highly popular to this day. It is great for solo amateurs as well as people wishing to join large citizen science projects. So there are always good gift options for them. This year I'm recommending the Windscapes Timelapse Camera.  Place it out in the wild or just your backyard, and beautifully capture all the feathered visitors for posterity. And if you are so inclined, it can help with species identification and your involvement in any number of projects, such as Project FeederWatch or the Great Backyard Bird Count. All for the price of $78.

Astronomy: Citizen scientists don't just stare down into tiny cells.  They also love to gaze high into the heavens. And when they do, projects like the AAVSO Citizen Sky program are available and  looking for volunteers. So you can enjoy the night sky while making meaningful research contributions.  My recommendation for a good starter telescope is the Meade StarNavigator 102.  It comes with and and comes well reviewed by many reputable review sites. But if this specific one doesn't work for you many buyers guides are available, such as this one at

Board Games: Citizen scientists aren't always wandering the woods are out sky watching late at night.  They enjoy a restful night at home with their families too. So this year I also found a few board games for family game night the first is Compounded. A game for 2-5 players, each person is a lab manager who must build various compounds by managing their elements and trading wisely with other players.  Perfect for the chemist in all of us.   For those with a more historical bent, The New Science let's you take on the role of a famous 17th scientist.  Help them perform their research, publish their studies, and climb the ranks of the Royal Society.  Many Society members (and the scientists featured in this game) could be considered citizen scientists as well so it's a perfect fit for us!

Still trying to find that perfect something?  Check out my 2012 Citizen Science Holiday Gift Guide for even more great gift ideas.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crowd-Funding Citizen Science: Broadening the Search and Finding Some Initial Insights

Photo Courtesy:
Flickr User 401K (2012)
Last week I started looking at how effective crowd-funding has been to the citizen science field by searching for projects specifically designating themselves as being "citizen" science. But instead of cataloging hundreds of projects (as expected) I only found 18.  So this week I'm greatly expanding my search by looking for projects that don't call themselves citizen science, but which really are when reviewed closely enough.

Obviously the main goal is to continue uncovering the best way for citizen scientists to take advantage of the rise in crowd-funding.  But it's also beneficial as we try to understand the business and economics of citizen science; using crowd-funding insights to identify and model citizen science based businesses as well.

Performing this analysis meant reading through hundreds (though it seemed like thousands) of projects somehow tagged or categorized in each site's systems as being in the area of "science". This may have left out a tiny few potential citizen science projects, but it's still a very large sample size and certainly representative for identifying never gong citizen science models and spotting interesting funding trends. For the project population I used all publicly available information from Kickstarter, Rockethub, IndieGoGo, PetriDish, and (formerly Microryza). These are many of the most popular and best known sites that should cover the large majority of potential,projects.

When reviewing each project I tried to use the definition of citizen science I've described in previous posts ("The systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis"), as well as the recent OED definition and Muki Haklay's discussion of it ("Scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions).  I also used the rules of thumb described in my three-pronged test (unfortunately those rules of thumb did not help me as well as initially hoped and have led me to thinking of ways to change them...more on that another time).  But once I dove in there were a lot of "grey-area" projects that were had to classify as citizen science or not.  So I had to add the following rules that narrowed the pool of projects and ensured they were truly represented the spirit of citizen science.

  • Projects had to receive at least a minimal level of funding support.  It turns out there are many projects that received $0 or just a few percent of the requested amount.  In my mind these are project profiles that were never completed, or that the requester themselves didn't have full confidence in.  If they could not even convince one or two people (even friends or family) to contribute it makes me doubt the seriousness, and usefulness, of the project. So these have been left out of the analysis. 
  • Projects could not be based on Pseudoscience.  Although I can't disprove the existence of ghosts or UFOs, this is not the types of citizen science we are looking for.  The same goes for the use of science to support different types of new-age spiritualism or religion.
  • STEM and educational projects needed to have "new discovery" component and could not be for standard science training. There are many worthy projects devoted to purchasing lab supplies for classrooms, creating science education videos, or encouraging science experimentation by youth.  But to be truly considered citizen science (in my opinion), one needs to be performing scientific work that should be advancing the field of study.  That doesn't mean youth can't participate in citizen science since they can make solid contributions to advancing society's knowledge in many ways. Not at all.  But if they are just performing standard scientific experiments that is not part of a greater research goal, then it is not citizen science.  This could be a much larger debate for another time, but suffice it to say this did not enter my analysis. The one exception to this rule is when the educational opportunity supports citizen science. Typically this is found in projects that include adult education along with youth. We already know that successful citizen science projects often contain an educational component to both 1) explain the project so volunteers can perform their roles correctly, and 2) potential volunteers often see the learning experience as a perk of participating. So these adult science education projects take care of the training requirements and prepare people to be successful citizen science participants, and that makes them a type of citizen science project too. 

A lot of of interesting things popped out from my initial analysis (which can be found online here). But first the facts.

Between projects that specifically include the term "citizen science"  as well as those just including the vague term "science" anywhere in the title or project description, there were only 80 projects since 2010 that can be considered citizen science. This is much smaller than I anticipated given the tens of thousands projects currently listed among the targeted sites (Kickstarter alone has listed nearly 200,000 projects itself).  And of those projects they all added up to a total requested amount of less than $1 million dollars ($960,045).

One silver lining is that of those projects listed, two out of every three did meet their funding goals and overall the projects raised nearly $600,000.  Unfortunately the average project only received $12,000.  So I'm forced to re-iterate the feeling that citizen science itself is not enough to draw crowd-funding.  Instead requesters must show the innate importance and worth of each project, as well as the excitement value.  They also need to make significant efforts to market these projects to potential funders.  There are many web sites and reports about ways to market crowd-funding projects, but nearly all say you have to work hard to do it and can't just rely on the listing itself.  This is a huge topic...perhaps we can get more into it in a future post.

For the time being we still have a lot to work from based on the listing of citizen science crowd-funding projects.  As an initial step, below are a number of categories of projects found during my research.  These may change over time, but they seem to be a great place to start the conversation.  So I'd encourage you to look at the listing itself and the categories below, and let me know your own thoughts.  That's the only way to improve our understanding.

  • Device Creation: I expected to find a number of these, and projects like "miniPCR: A DNA Discovery System for Everybody" and "Dotlens - The $10 Smartphone Microscope" certainly fit the bill.  These are people who want to build a machine or device (using science and engineering principles) outside of a company structure.  In my mind, they are just individuals with a scientific idea and who want to turn it into a product.  In many ways this is citizen science since the person is a member of the public (outside of the "mainstream" scientific community) and is performing research to build and design the product.  While I found many products proposed for development, most seemed to be run by small companies, or by students/recent graduates who are already trained in those fields.  So it is difficult to classify these as "citizen-led" and thus not citizen science.  While I did not include data on "non-citizen science" projects in this analysis it is certainly a ripe area for more research. Anyone is welcome to copy my data and manipulate it for their own purposes, and to add on as much additional information as they like.  Just please let us know what you find so we can share the word with everyone else. 
  • Community-Based Environmental Research: Many environmental research projects look like traditional scientific research projects and don't mention citizen science at all.  But they are strongly reliant on volunteers from the local community and are often begun with the goal of improving the health/safety of community members.  The volunteers may play a wide variety of roles, from helping to design and even fund the study, to collecting samples or performing analyses.  Some of the examples I found (such as "Solving Critical Water Issues on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota" and "White Earth Nation in Minnesota: Water Monitoring to Ensure Healthy Wild Rice") specifically involve Native American communities, and there may be socio-cultural reasons for that specificity.  But there are also non-native examples and I see no compelling reasons not to expand this to any other local community.
  • Science Buildings and Spaces: Citizen science does not need to be a solitary pursuit. Over the years group of citizen scientists have organized themselves into supportive communities, and now these groups want to create a physical space for themselves. One of the main benefits is using it as a shared research space for the members. This allows expensive science equipment to be purchased and shared by citizen scientists who could never afford it on their own. It also allows experimentation in a safe, environmentally sound manner typically not possible in an individual's  basement lab. Secondarily, these spaces also provide a common space for citizen scientists to learn from each other.  They also offer space for bringing in guest speakers and organizing group research projects. Examples include "Forging 'The Forge' Downtown" and "BioCurious: A Hackerspace for Biotech. The Community Lab for Citizen Science".   
  • Scientific Equipment and Supplies: Like the building spaces described above, there are often projects to purchase supplies or equipment to be shared by a group of citizen scientists or to be used in a specific citizen science project.  There are also smaller projects where individual citizen scientists are asking for assistance purchasing equipment they can't afford themselves, and not for any specific purpose.  Just to use for the thrill of discovery.  "Black Rock Observatory" and "Raising Money for a 3-d Printer" are good examples of these two models, respectively.
  • Educational Materials for Citizen Scientists: Distinct from projects benefiting youth, these projects have a wide variety of ages in their audience and can be used to either promote the sciences (and citizen science) or directly support the educational development of citizen scientists.  "Astronomy on the Road" and "Science Education for Adults" are illustrative examples.
  • Publications: This type covers a couple of different things. The first publication model is creating magazine-style periodicals documenting the citizen science experience. This includes citizen science news, profiles of projects and individual citizen scientists, and discussion of emerging trends in the field. Citizen Science Quarterly and "Power Up the Voice of the Scientific Crowd"are great examples of this. Another model is the scientific journal model that offers citizen scientists opportunities to publish their research, or for publication of experimental protocols members of the public can use. " - Life Science Protocol Repository" is a great example of this.  I have this blog as an outlet for my research. But not everybody takes that path. 
  • Gatherings: The publications and building spaces described above are great opportunities for citizen scientists to communicate with each other and enjoy being part of a larger research community.  Another way to do this is through conferences and festivals devoted to citizen science.  Like the upcoming 2015 Citizen Science Conference, the Mozilla Festival East Africa and Open Science Summit 2012 were designed to connect independent researchers to each other and encourage the sharing of ideas.
  • Science-based Art: Finding the "Bro-BOT: Open-Source Robotic Drummer - Sci Fi Fantasy Band" project on Kickstarter was a pleasant surprise.  It shows not just the power of science and engineering, but the fun side too.  In this case a rock band is performing its own research and design work to create a robot drummer who can play with them on stage.  Not only will this drummer keep perfect time and participate musically in the band's sound, but it also provides a novelty for the crowd and a demonstration of the coolness of science.  I know many artists are interested in melding art and science so hopefully we will see more hit the crowd-funding space in the near future.

Those are some of my early thoughts.  But I think we've just scratched the surface of insights that can be gleaned.  There is much more additional analysis that can occur and many of these ideas can be further fleshed out.  There are also important questions on what people can do to improve the fundraising success on these types of crowd-funding sites.  And we still have to find what it teach us about ways to make citizen science profitable for citizen scientists themselves.

All those are coming in future posts.  I promise!  But in the meantime won't you join the conversation?  Let me know if what I found is similar to your experience, whether you think I've missed something important, of if you want to expand on any of these ideas.  I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Crowdfunding Citizen Science: Is it Working?

Photo Courtesy:
Flickr user: 401(K) 2012
Funding for citizen science has been preoccupying me recently.  In most cases I think about creating business models that can develop and use funds that support the field.  But that's not the only option.  Scientists are well-versed in requesting grant funds for citizen science support, and over the last few years crowd-funding has also been used.  In fact the 2015 Citizen Science Conference is requesting crowd-funding assistance.  But is it working?

I've done a (very) preliminary analysis and made it publicly available on the web.  Feel free to add or modify if you'd like.  You'll see this not a rigorous analysis...just a basic search of four sites (Rockethub, Experiment, IndieGoGo, and Kickstarter) for the phrase "citizen science."  While this leaves out many potential projects it still reveal a lot for or purposes here.

I thought this would take a significant amount of effort..sadly that was not the case.  For starters,  I only found 18 projects spanning the last few years. Why is this?  Partly I think it's indicative of how citizen science (as a term or identifiable field) is still not completely mainstream. So projects that may be citizen science by our definitions would not use that phrase to describe or market themselves.

Even the total of all these projects came out to a mere $81,000.  Citizen science can be an extremely cost effective way to do research, but $81,000 is not nearly enough to cover its costs. Especially when those projects only raised $62,000 (76%) of that amount. Something is missing.

Looking even more closely at these individually, many are not specifically citizen science projects. Instead they use citizen science as one small part of the research, or it is an educational project that impacts citizen scientists as one of many audiences. Again, this is not enough to make a significant impact.

But maybe we are looking at this in the wrong way. This simple analysis only looked for projects that included the specific "Citizen Science" phrase. Would evaluating projects ourselves for a citizen science connection (without relying on text searches) teach us something?

Yes.  A lot.

Here are just a few of many examples:

The good side of this is how vividly it demonstrates the potential support available for citizen science projects. The public is interested in this research and the products it creates, and they are willing to fund it.  Literally millions have already been spent and much more can come in the future.

Unfortunately, the bad side is it further demonstrates the lack of "pull" the term citizen science has for inspiring the public. In my view potential funders either a) don't feel connected to the term, and 2) care more about individual projects and not the field as a whole. So there is still much hope for project leaders who make their research interesting to the public. But just relying on goodwill sadly won't cut it. There is already a wealth of information on successfully starting a crowd funded project ( such as here and here) so I won't reinvent the wheel. But these should apply to citizen science projects just as well as they do to any other type of project.

This leads me to re-starting the analysis while asking a whole new set of questions. How do we identify other citizen science projects for additional analysis?  Can we categorize these "non-traditional" or "emerging" types of projects into a useful model?  What might that model teach us about ways to make citizen science profitable for citizen scientists themselves?

The answer to all is I don't know. But next week I'll try to answer.

Stay tuned!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Diary of a Citizen Scientist

Last month Sharman Apt Russell published the new book "Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World."   After reading it through I was amazed at how well she captures the thrill, the curiosity, and the fun of citizen science.

From her home in New Mexico's Gila Valley she writes extensively about her time researching tiger beetles.  Not just catching them, but raising the larvae and making new contributions to science's understanding of them.  Through contacts with professional entomologists who guide her through the process, she is able to observe parts of the tiger beetle life cycle never seen before.  That's a joy as a researcher, and even more so as an "amateur researcher".

But she doesn't stop there.  She also writes about the field as a whole and the many citizen science projects that are growing by the day.  Some you've read about here before, others are quite new.  But all help us find new ways to engage and enjoy our world.

As a treat for you I'm proud to offer an excerpt from the book below.  I think it does a great job of capturing not only the essence of the overall book, but also the joy and wonder of citizen science.  Hopefully you'll enjoy it too, and if you do, I encourage you to pick up a copy through the OSU Press ordering site (here), (here) or at your local bookstore. You'll be glad you did.

Renaissance and Revolution
It’s 2007 and you’re a young astrophysicist on your third pint in an English pub, clothes rumpled, head in your hands. You whine: in order to prove your latest theory on star formation, you need to compare large samples of galaxies with elliptical and spiral shapes. What you have to work with are a million unclassified galaxy images from a telescope in New Mexico. The shape of galaxies is a pattern computers cannot easily recognize, and you’ve spent a week, twelve hours a day, sorting through fifty thousand photographs. You close your weary eyes. You can’t keep up the pace. A friend murmurs, “Maybe you should get some help?”

Only a year ago, NASA’s Stardust@Home project started posting images online from its interstellar dust collector, and citizen scientists eagerly began looking for stardust particles. Could people be trained to classify galaxies, too? You brighten up. A British hurrah. You publicize your idea, you set up the website, and within twenty-four hours, you are getting almost seventy thousand classifications an hour. In the first year, you will get fifty million.That’s the apocryphal story behind Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science program that has since resulted in dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers, as well as discoveries like “green-pea” galaxies, which produce stars at a high rate and may help us understand how the first stars formed. Each galaxy classification by a single volunteer is corroborated by thirty more volunteers, with a resulting accuracy equal to that of professional astronomers. The universe—which may contain as many as five hundred billion galaxies—is slowly being mapped by cartographers of all ages, all occupations, and all nationalities.

Around the world, citizen science projects are proliferating like the neural net in a prenatal brain. The sheer number of citizen scientists, combined with new technology, is beginning to shape how research gets done. Some 860,000 people have participated in Galaxy Zoo and related projects on the website Zooniverse. More than a quarter million play the video game Foldit, helping biochemists synthesize new proteins. The National Geographic Society’s search for archaeological sites in Mongolia sends satellite images from the field to thousands of citizen scientists downloading them at home. The use of crowdsourcing to take advantage of large numbers of human eyes and brains has inspired the development of algorithms to improve how computers themselves work; like Yoda, we can teach them our mysterious ways.

Although the biggest citizen science programs are online, many other citizen scientists are getting up from the computer, going outside, and joining a research team to study urban squirrels or phytoplankton or monarch butterflies. Most obviously, they help scientists count things: juniper pollen, comets, horseshoe crabs, dragonfly swarms, microbes (in your belly button and in your kitchen), picas, thunderstorms, roadkill. An estimated two hundred thousand people work with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tracking and monitoring birds, with over a million observations reported each month on the Lab’s online checklist. Citizen scientists also double as environmental activists, collecting air and water samples, documenting invasive species, and looking at changes in species behavior.

An army of human volunteers has become an army of scientific instruments, and that’s not a new idea. In China, people have been recording locust outbreaks for over three thousand years. French wine growers began tracking grape harvests in the fifteenth century. Charles Darwin relied on a network of amateurs for observations of the natural world, working-class men and middle-class women, vicars and shopkeepers with whom he corresponded by penny post. Today we’ve replaced the pen with the login, using the Internet to communicate in ways that make large-scale, long-term projects possible.

One of the newest and potentially most important branches of citizen science is the analysis and understanding of global warming, with programs like Nature’s Notebook and Project Budburst using volunteers to monitor plant and animal responses to a changing climate.  What plants are budding when? What birds are here now? What insects have emerged?

In Portland, Oregon, a couple and their two children walk the trails of urban parks watching for the first leaves of kinnikinnick, the flowers of Indian plum, the fruits of the mellifluous salmonberry, snowberry, thimbleberry. Before the start of spring, the trilliums are underground and the snowberry leafless. Suddenly the Oregon grape has clusters of yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds. Warmer and longer days bring more color and scent, camas lily and bleeding heart and lupine and salal and wild rose, and then in the fall, maples turn red and the leaves of Solomon’s seal yellow and gold. Carefully, the oldest daughter records this information online. Conscientiously, the family marks the appearance of spotted towhees and northern flying squirrels, the absence of Pacific tree frogs. Their efforts are being duplicated across rural and urban America by thousands of men, women, and children.

This is renaissance, your dentist now an authority on butterflies and you (in retrospect this happened so pleasantly, watching clouds one afternoon) connected by Twitter to the National Weather Service. This is revolution, breaking down the barriers between expert and amateur, with new collaborations across class and education. Pygmy hunters and gatherers use smartphones to document deforestation in the Congo Basin. High school students identify fossils in soils from ancient seas in upstate New York. Do-it-yourself biologists make centrifuges at home. This is falling in love with the world, and this is science, and at the risk of sounding too much the idealist, I have come to believe they are the same thing.

My own work with tiger beetles, under the guidance of two generous mentors, was done mainly during the field seasons of 2011–2012. The entries that make up this book describe that fieldwork and have been shaped from written notes and the observations of those two years. In the larger world of citizen science, not much has changed from then to the writing of this introduction now. Only the numbers have increased: more and more people are watching birds, taking water samples, staring into the heart of a red spiral galaxy, marrying curiosity with collective power, waking up and thinking--what am I going to study today?

Reprinted with Permission.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Open Source Computing and Citizen Science Innovation - Where They Start and End

The last few weeks I've been fleshing out thoughts on citizen science business models in preparation for next year's Citizen Science Conference in San Jose.  There is so much to sift through and people to talk with that I wanted to hit the ground running.  Of course there won't be nearly enough time to discuss everything during a two-day conference, but I hope this will start a discussion there, and on this blog, for a long time afterwards.

One interesting book I came across was "Making Open Innovation Work" by Stefan Lindegard, which offers great insights on companies harnessing the innovation of external researchers.  Many of these lessons can be applies to our discussion, but that's not why I'm writing.  Instead it forces me to ask a question that has bothered me a for a while but I've never successfully answered.

What is the dividing line between citizen science and open-source computing?  Is there one?

The reason I ask is the book discusses the work of, a web site that connects open-source computer programmers with companies looking to pay for code.  Think of this as a for-profit version of the site  In many ways what they do is scientific and many of the same citizen scientists in our field are the same as people drawn to open-source computing.  But the two fields have never really connected and we don't often hear them talked about in the same context.  Is this just a remnant of people not understanding the fields of data science/computer science, or is there something deeper? I have ideas on some of the differences but I want to hear yours.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  I'll keep answering this question online before the conference and keep this conversation going.  But I think it's an interesting discussion regardless of a future presentation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Citizen Science Business Models - An Idea Worth Exploring

Thank you all for your feedback.  With your advice I put together, and submitted, a proposal for the upcoming Citizen Science 2015 conference.  It's a favorite topic of mine and one that is essential to moving our field forward "For Love and Money: Business Models that support, benefit from, and share the rewards with, the work of citizen scientists."

This is an ambitious talk for me but one I feel is important.  In many ways I can only scratch the surface in a PowerPoint presentation to a conference room of citizen science professionals.  But it will kick off a whole series of follow-up reports on this blog about the topic.  There is much good background research that can't be included without overwhelming the audience, but is perfect for an online environment.  There are also nuances, subtleties, and sub-categories of information that are vitally important and can't fit on a Powerpoint slide.  But mostly I want to keep the conversation going long after the conference ends.

I'm doing this in my strong belief that the citizen science community can make important discoveries and support research that provide value to profit-making companies, and they deserve to be rewarded for that service.  But that money is also needed to support citizen science research and pay for investments that will expand what citizen scientists can do.  Research costs money and it has to come from somewhere.

Conferences also cost money.  And in true citizen science fashion they are hoping to crowdfund through the company Razoo for a significant amount of support. I'm hugely appreciative of all the opportunities this conference provides so I'm happy to make a donation.  Won't you join me?  This conference is here to help you but they need your support.  Give a little or give a lot, anything will help.

See you in Palo Alto!  

Monday, September 1, 2014

Care to Team Up on Some Citizen Science Conference Sessions?

I love a good conference.  Most are filled with opportunities to learn new things and meet like-minded people.  You can become an expert in anything by yourself at home, then suddenly realize there is much more to learn.  And it's a great way to stay motivated until the NEXT conference.  Which is why I'm so excited about next year's Citizen Science Association Conference in San Jose.

But what do I plan to talk about at the meeting?  And do you want to join me?

For starters, there is an open Call for Proposals for sessions due mid-September.  As I wrote last week there are some good ideas I've been considering that would be of interest to attendees and would take advantage of my previous work.  I've since narrowed it down to these two.  If you would like to help with them or have ideas of your own to add, please let me know.  I'd love to make these as inclusive as possible with the participation of a wide variety of people.   In other words, doing it the citizen science way.
  • For Love and Money: Business models for creating a citizen science industry infrastructure that supports, and benefits from, the work of citizen scientists.
An important finding of my poster for the 2012 Citizen Science Conference was that "... the strongest positive correlation for all interactive citizen science projects is the availability of a reward."  This piqued many people's curiosity and was the source of many discussions at my poster.  While they all agreed with the sentiment none had a really good (and cost-effective) way of doing that, and they were looking for advice.  Unfortunately this is a "chicken and egg" problem where you need scale to drive benefits that bring monetary rewards, but getting to that scale required monetary incentives.  So we need to break this logjam and incrementally create a self-sustaining infrastructure that will support our efforts. 
This fits under the theme of "Tackling grand challenges and everyday problems with citizen science" by addressing the only way to ensure extensive data collection and public participation in scientific research - by introducing a profit motive.   This half hour session will include independent research on existing techniques,  analogies to other scientific fields, select experiences from current companies in the field, and impact analysis of existing projects that include profit motivators. 
The big challenge here is providing organization and self-sustaining momentum to the citizen science movement.  Currently we are reliant on people's good will and free time for their participation.  This applies across all of the various scientific fields that citizen science impacts, such as medicine, ecology, astronomy, and climate change. While this has worked for the time being we need to find ways to bring the POTENTIAL for amateur scientists to earn money from their work.  To do that, companies need to be able to profit from the work of amateur scientists. 
I see this session unfolding in the following way:
  • Demonstrating need for a profit motive beyond altruistic, educational, and other motivating factors
  • (Non-financial) Ways Profit Helps Citizen Scientists
  • Ways to Benefit Companies
  • Analysis of Current Profit Motivators (Quantitative)
  • Analysis of Current Profit Motivators (Qualitative)
    • Challenge Projects
    • "Door Prizes" based on participation, not results
    • Non-cash incentives 
    • Bounties
    • Entrepreneurship
    • Crowd-funding
  • Building the Infrastructure
    • Initial Steps
    • Middle Steps
    • Final Vision
Through this session, we will see how developing an mutually beneficial infrastructure can help all participants and will lay out a course for achieving that vision. 
The big question is how large and long this talk will be.  There is a short version I can do as a solo speaker that should engage the audience and provide a lot of new perspectives to spark discussion.  And I'm already planning to include insights from some people already trying to make this work.  But I am still looking for some people/companies with experience partnering with and profiting from citizen science efforts.  If you are one of these people and would like to join the discussion, I'd love to make this a larger panel discussion for the full conference.

  • Transparency in Government-Funded ResearchPros and Cons from a Citizen Science standpoint
This fits under the theme of "Digital Opportunities and Challenges in Citizen Science" by evaluating the impact of various "Open Science" efforts begun by Federal agencies on citizen scientists and citizen science projects (ironically, that is a different meaning than in my "OpenScientist" name).  This would be a short, 15-minute talk about the current policies of various Federal research agencies, description of the data and materials available to the public, analysis of how (and if) it is actually being used by citizen scientists in their research, and ideas for expanding both its use and utility. 
Unfortunately this is actually part of my day job and may require some ethics approvals to present.  But if there are people who want to talk about this issue (from either a citizen science or Federal agency standpoint) please let me know and it will be worth my going through clearances.
Unfortunately not all of my ideas fit into the six conference themes.  So "Citizen Science vs. Citizen Pseudo-ScienceSeparating amateur researchers from public crackpots" will need to be a future set of posts on this blog, as will "Federal Government's Role in Supporting Citizen ScienceA history and future opportunities".

A third is a prime opportunity for a much longer set of posts or even a separate web site:"Re-Examining Citizen Science Throughout HistoryHow pervasive were amateur researchers in the history of science versus "Establishment" or "Professional" researchers.  How can we apply those modern terms to yesterday's society?  Can we use historical lessons to increase public participation and respect in the field?"   It's not something I can show publicly in the next few months since time will be limited, but I encourage anyone interested in this topic to get in touch with me at OpenScientst (at)  I have a lot of ideas and would love to hear yours too.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recover Historic Research with the Smithsonian

Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian
This blog was started to highlight the many citizen science projects available and show people how easy it is to contribute.  I've come a long way since then and have begun focusing on larger citizen science themes as well.  But I still like to showcase new projects every now and then.  Especially one so close to my heart.

The Smithsonian Digital Volunteers program needs your help going through their vast collection of historic scientific archives and transcribing the data for future analysis.  With a collection as large as the Smithsonian's a huge number of pieces are donated or created by institution scientists, but their data can easily be overlooked or lost among the overwhelming volume.  By digitizing and transcribing, all the information can be cataloged, stored centrally and then reviewed by anyone interested in the topic. It also allows researchers to use modern data management and analysis tools to find previously hidden connections from within the various sources.

This type of data has many different uses.  In some cases, historical weather data, and even counts of plants and animals, can be used to track climate change and global warming.  Even the impact of that change of local species can be tracked with that data.  It also allows information on now-extinct species that were alive back when the record was created, and allows scientists fill in the holes in the historic record to see how our wold overall is changing.

Transcription may sound easy but things can get complicated.  And not just because of handwriting that is worse then mine.  For example, take the snippet below from a mid-1800s electrical conduction experiment performed by former Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
There is a word here (highlighted in yellow) which seems to be six letters long and is some sort of synonym for "travel".  Also, based on a review of other letters on this page, it is most likely an "H" since the one other word starting with an "H" looks nearly identical to it.  But the word eludes me and has eluded the six other people who have worked on it so far.  You may have better luck, but it's this type of roadblock that can suddenly eat up your transcription time, and which the Smithsonian can not afford to have their own staff doing.  A further analysis of electrical terms beginning with an "H" may help provide the answer, but so far it's still being worked on.  This is where you come in.

Getting Started is Easy:

  1. Register for a new account by visiting the New User Account page and supplying a username and email address.  Once entered, check your email and click the verification link to confirm your intent to create the account and set up a password.  No other personal information is required.
  2. Visit the main Transcription Center web site to learn more about the project and discover the source transcription materials that most interest you.
  3. Review the Instructions for transcribing.  In a nutshell, include every word as it appears in the document (misspellings included) and accurately describe any images on the page.  Don't worry about bold or italicized text but do note any underlines or strikeouts. 
  4. Go back to the main page and pick the source material you wish to work from.  Click on it, and then see all of the pages in that document. For starters, pick one that has not been begun.
  5. Transcribe the page as directed in the instructions.  Once you are fully done, click to Submit for Review.
  6. If you wish to review someone's transcription, click a page marked "Needs Review" and proofread the entire page.  If there is not a single error, click "Mark as Complete". This sends it to Smithsonian staff for finalizing.  If there is a problem, make the change and then click "Complete and Mark for Review" to have another independent person review this updated, corrected version.
  7. If you are unsure of a word, just enter a set of double brackets [[]] and add your best guess.  This will help the next person while not making it an official note.
That's all there is to it!

It really is simple to lend a hand.  Just select from the source materials currently available; right now they are categorized into themes of "Biodiverse Planet", "Mysteries of the Universe", "Field Book Registry",  "American Experience", "Civil War", and "World Cultures".  These aren't just pulled from the scientific artifacts but the entire Smithsonian collection.  So not only can you learn about science, but U.S. history and art as well.

This is a great project for new citizen scientists, people living in the Washington, DC area, environmentalists studying climate change, and anyone interested in the history of science.  So what are you waiting for?  Let's start transcribing!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Can we Talk About the 2015 Citizen Science Association Conference?

Next February 11-12, 2015, the Citizen Science Association will host it's first conference in San Jose, California.  Will you be there?

Two years ago citizen science practitioners and participants gathered in Portland, Oregon to discuss the present and future state of Public Participation in Scientific Research. Yours truly was there as were many of the most active players in our field.  Everyone learned a lot, shared their experiences, and started planning how to move the field forward.  Out of that an association was formed and now a conference is being planned.  So jump on board and join us in planning the next steps in our evolution.  It just get's bigger and better.

I plan to write MUCH more about this conference over the next few months to help set the stage.  But first a few logistics for you:

  • Get on the Citizen Science Association mailing list and help us grow by joining up today.  Membership is free (for now) and let's your voice be added to all the planning.  You'll also be the first to know once final registration details are announced
  • Register for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting that this is technically a part of.  Attend the whole AAAS conference or opt for a $23 reduced fee registration of just the Citizen Science Conference.
  • Make preliminary travel plans to San Jose that week and reserve a hotel room before they sell out.  Don't contact the hotels directly but instead work through the AAAS meeting coordinators.
  • Check back with the Citizen Science Association before November 10 when the Early Bird Registration Discount ends.

One more thing.  Have you thought about what you want to say?  The Citizen Science Association has placed a Call for Proposals (workshops, short talks, panel discussions, poster sessions) due by September 15, 2014.  Personally I am contemplating a few different ideas and am trying to narrow them down.  Some material will come from things I've discussed in this blog, while others may be from other experiences and new research I've been working on.  But if you have some interest in these topics or might like to join forces, just let me know at OpenScientist (at)  I think some of you are working on similar ideas and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  • For Love and Money: Business models for creating a citizen science industry infrastructure that supports, and benefits from, the work of citizen scientists.
  • Federal Government's Role in Supporting Citizen Science: A history and future opportunities
  • Transparency in Government-Funded Research: Pros and Cons from a Citizen Science standpoint
  • Citizen Science vs. Citizen Pseudo-Science: Separating amateur researchers from public crackpots
  • Re-Examining Citizen Science Throughout History: How pervasive were amateur researchers in the history of science versus "Establishment" or "Professional" researchers.  How can we apply those modern terms to yesterday's society?  Can we use historical lessons to increase public participation and respect in the field?

See you in San Jose!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Five Best Cities for a Citizen Scientist to Live

Last month I wrote a post on where the best places are for a citizen scientist to live.  In case any of you out there are planning to move, these are things to look for indicating many opportunities to participate in citizen science.  After hearing your feedback and doing some research on my own, I narrowed them to five general indicators:
  1. Access to Universities and Community Colleges
  2. Proximity to Museums and Science Centers
  3. Access to National, State, and Local Parks
  4. Dark Skies
  5. Environmental Consciousness
After hearing your comments and looking more closely a sixth criterion has revealed itself. This has also been added as an update to the previous post.

  • Entrepreneurship: Many of the key traits of citizen scientists are shared by successful entrepreneurs. Both are highly independent, dedicated, intellectual, and comfortable with risk. They are also willing to question authority and defy conventions.  These traits help you build a business from scratch or offer your data to tenured researchers as an equal. So citizen scientists will look for areas that welcome similar personalities as themselves and they fit right in.  As an added bonus, in an entrepreneurial city any scientific discoveries can be more easily turned into profitable businesses or used in other ways to make money.  A perfect way to motivate, and support, the citizen science community.

With these key traits in place we can start identifying the best U.S. cities for citizen science.  Admittedly one could argue over the relative merits of each city and their ranking.  But this is the sense I have from my years watching the field and it should move this interesting conversation forward.

5) Portland, OR
Portland has long enjoyed an independent streak among it's citizens, as well as a strong environmental awareness.  This has created a town with a larger-than-normal size of existing nature and animal tracking citizen science projects, and these are expected to just increase.  So it's the perfect place for new and experience citizen scientists to join existing projects or find people for new ones. It was even the site of the first Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference back in 2012; just another way it supports the citizen science community.

4) Phoenix, AZ
Picking just one city in the U.S. Southwest as best for citizen scientists was a difficult job.  All are in desert areas with the abundant life (if you know where to look), and many need scientific help to preserve the fragile environment.  The desert also holds many important archaeological finds as dinosaur bones and remains of ancient cultures lie just below the surface.  Just a few miles outside many of these cities find low populations and crystal clear skies at night...perfect for star-gazing.  But ultimately Phoenix rises above it's other desert counterparts.  It's high concentration of world-class research universities and concentration of PhD scientists make it a great spot for public participation in science.

3) San Francisco, CA
The San Francisco Bay area is known as the heart of Silicon Valley and the innovative technical culture that thrives there.  The University of California Schools, along with local Stanford University, provide a wealth of highly educated researchers ready to be involved in citizen science or guide the public in their citizen science endeavors.  Currently it is a great place to find new citizen science tools being made, from a thriving DIYBio community to programmers creating many of the citizen science apps we use today.  Even the old Xerox PARC center laid a building block for the 1970's amateur computer clubs that Apple eventually sprouted from.  Again citizen science and entrepreneurship show their close link and make San Francisco a worthy choice at number three.

2) Washington, DC
Free access to a treasure trove of information and activities are at the heart of DC's citizen science appeal. Start with the Smithsonian Institution Museums...the Air and Space and Natural History museums are free to the public and host world class treasures -- from the Hope Diamond to the Space Shuttle Discovery and everything in between.  The city also attracts leading experts to speak at free or low-cost events, either at the museums or at the many scientific associations around town (such as a American Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society) hoping to lend a scientific voice to our politics.  Even the headquarters of major Federal agencies (such as the National Science Foundation) offer access to cutting-edge discoveries to the public.  Of course, you can learn all about happenings in the DC area at our sister site ScienceinDC.

1) Honolulu, HI
What doesn't Hawaii top the charts in?  Ifthe beautiful beaches and tropical climate aren't enough to lure you over the Pacific, hopefully the scientific opportunities will!  The Hawaiian islands in general are a nature-lovers paradise with bountiful tropical forests to hike through, as well as an ocean filled with coral reefs and abundant sea life. There are active volcanoes for understanding the Earth's interior, and for experiencing completely different ecosystems at high elevation.  Finally there's Honolulu, with its high tech industry and world class university.  What more does a citizen scientist want?

So what do you think of this list?  Did I miss your favorite city?  Do you think Boston (MA), Ithaca (NY), or Oak Ridge (TN) were wrongly overlooked?  Let me know in the comments below and keep the conversation going.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Where Are the Best Places for a Citizen Scientist to Live? - Key Traits

Much of this blog has been about large, national and international scope citizen science projects.  But that only scratches the surface of what's available.  In fact the large number of citizen science projects happen at the local state parks, community colleges, and local high schools.  So we can't ignore all those great opportunities.  But what happens if you don't live somewhere with a lot of citizen science projects?  Are there places you can move to and  get more involved?  Let's find out.

There are many places we can go to find information bout each US city and which will rank them by the criteria we want.  Sites like Find Your Spot come to mind where you fill out a number of personality questions and receive a list of likely places.  But what criteria should we use?  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Access to Universities and Community Colleges: There is nothing like a nearby institution of higher learning to cultivate to inspire a passion for research.  Many universities are built around research and have a world of resources available for everyday people if you ask nicely enough.  But even if their tools are locked up tight, the opportunity to learn about advanced topics through seminars and open campus days often available, and many professors plain love to talk to local residents about their labs.  It's their favorite subject! And those professors are often the same ones who indulge their science passions further as citizen scientists in fields outside their day-to-day interests.  But most importantly, these research professors are the ones designing and managing citizen science projects for people in the community to join. 
  • Proximity to Museums and Science Centers: There is no better place to inspire everyday people to science like a local science museum.  They explain complicated topics in ways that everyday people can understand, and help relate it to their lives.  They also run programs that involve the local community, many of which are citizen science projects.  So finding a good science museum is another ticket to finding well-run projects. 
  • Access to National, State, and Local Parks: What better place is there to see hundreds of unique plants and animals than in the national parks set up to protect them?  Not only that, many of these parks are in places with significant geologic figures, or even scientific bounty (such as Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah).   And, as we've seen at universities and museums, there are many great local citizen science programs eager for volunteers.   
  • Dark Skies: For astronomy lovers nothing beats a deep, dark sky field for excellent star-gazing.  Whether it is a meteor shower, approaching comet, or bright planet everything is crisper on a clear night.  Experts typically recommend getting out at least an hour for major metropolitan areas to get the best views so rural areas typically get the best views.  But you'll know you're in a good spot once the Milky Way's dusty veil is clear even with a moon in the sky. 
  • Environmental Consciousness: Many of the most active citizen science projects are performed by people protecting natural resources.    In fact much of the field actually grew up from this community, where local citizen would test local waterways for contaminants or count the wildlife due to pollution concerns.  So an area with a high "green" contingent where the public is highly sensitive to environmental concerns will also be a great place to find interesting citizen science projects.
  • Entrepreneurship: Many of the key traits of citizen scientists are shared by successful entrepreneurs. Both are highly independent, dedicated, intellectual, and comfortable with risk. They are also willing to question authority and defy conventions.  These traits help you build a business from scratch or offer your data to tenured researchers as an equal. So citizen scientists will look for areas that welcome similar personalities as themselves and they fit right in.  As an added bonus, in an entrepreneurial city any scientific discoveries can be more easily turned into profitable businesses or used in other ways to make money.  A perfect way to motivate, and support, the citizen science community.
But these are just a few thoughts to get things rolling.  Are there other factors you can think when identifying areas supportive of citizen science?  Let me know in the comments below and I'll be happy to include them.

But where in the US are these places?  Tune in to next weeks post for a few answers.

(Updated 8/10/2014 to add Entrepreneurship as a sixth trait).

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Feeding My Baby: A Case-Study of Citizen Science in Everyday Life

Who knew my citizen science skills would come in handy so soon after childbirth?

Becoming a new father has been challenge for me as it is for everyone.  There is so much to learn about caring for a child, caring for the new mother, and helping your child not just live, but thrive. Add to that all the personal baggage, as well as societal and psychological expectations, that are brought into parenting, and it can be overwhelming. Fortunately our pediatrician's office has been a great source of information.  The doctor's and nurses pull from the latest medical research and their own experience to guide us on our way.  But as much as science knows about child development, it becomes quickly clear how much is not known.  Even for one of the babies most basic

Every one of the 4 million families with newborns must deal with is how to handle bottle feeding (either breast milk or formula).  Both are very valuable commodities that you don't want to waste, so the simple question arises of how long a bottle lasts either with or without refrigeration.  With nearly every one of the using bottles of some sort you'd think there would be simple answers. But there aren't.  So that's where my citizen science background comes in.

In a perfect world my doctors, the American Academy of Pediatrics bible "Your Baby's First Year", or any other authoritative source would have answered this question.  But they don't.  So we turn to one of the most trusted yet often least reliable sources...the Internet.  Which is where I found some of the best information from a blogger who is also a true citizen scientist, whether she knows it or not.

In her post ""The 2 Hour Rule: Is a Bottle Safe When it's been Left Out too Long?" this question is addressed head on. 

First she checks with the most authoritative source she can find, the Infant Formula Council.  They should have the most expertise on the subject and access to a wide variety of research.  The main problem is the potential for bias as a manufacturer's trade group.  So she balances that recommendation with one from the non-biased American Academy of Pediatrics.  Not only will they give a new perspective, but they represent the collective wisdom and expertise of doctors.  Also, between these two, she has looked to the "Experts" for advice and is willing to accept it at face value.  However, while both discuss the topic in generalities neither provides a concrete answer.  So she must continue looking.

The next step is to review the literature.  This is tough to do as an amateur but not impossible.  It just takes some persistence with Google or other search engine and then hoping the articles are publicly available (much more on this in a future blog post).  But it is not a blind is informed by the dangers described by the "Experts" above.  She is not dismissing their concerns, but trusting them and using them as a source for further exploration.

Finally, when all is said and done, she finds a related study on the impacts of time on formula feeding.  It's not completely on topic and does not directly answer her question.  And it was paid for by a bottle manufacturer.  All issues which she notes in the article.  But she does present it to inform her final decision.

Which is...

Sorry, I'm not going to reveal that.  You can find the answer yourself here.  The point is not whether formula can be used after two hours, or the relative merits versus breast milk.  It's to demonstrate some key points I've been trying to make ever since starting this blog.

  1. Just because you are not a Ph.D. scientist, don't be afraid to ask questions and wade into the debate.  It is possible for everyday people to understand, and be part of, the conversation of science.
  2. Trust but verify the advice of experts.  Relying on the knowledge of people studying a specific scientific issue is a vital starting point.  You can't just throw away everything science has learned and start on your own.  But also don't be afraid to question the experts.  They aren't infallible, and haven't always looked at things from every angle.  This does not question their authority or integrity, it is the standard due diligence allowed, and required, from every good scientist.
  3. Be prepared to be wrong.  In this case there was no evidence that her approach was harmful to her child.  But in reading the article there is every sense she was willing to make a change if the evidence was compelling.  That intellectual honesty is crucial for scientists and citizen scientists alike.

In other words, perform your research with a humble confidence. Don't worry that you don't have a degree in child development or have not spent years in medical school.   You can still investigate questions for yourself and help us all out.  Just make sure to put it on the web so others can take advantage too!