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The Crowd and The Cloud: The impact of citizen science

More than any other product of human scientific culture scientific knowledge is the collective property of all mankind.

            Konrad Lorenz

New technology has enabled science to progress at an unprecedented speed. Advancements previously thought impossible such as mapping the brain and identifying galaxies in space are being done now. The most exciting part is that these discoveries are made possible through people like you and me.

Citizen science refers to data collection and analysis by members of the general public, often in collaboration with professional scientists. It is especially critical now, as many fields of science produce big data which needs innovative techniques for analysis. By advancing the study of big data, citizen scientists are empowering researchers to make new discoveries. In this post, I will discuss the role of citizen science in today’s world.

The Scientific Status Quo

Science has changed since the founding of the National Science Foundation in 1950. It has grown as an enterprise with a shift from invention to innovation. Historian Harold Evans defines innovation as “a universal application of the solution by whatever means… Invention without innovation is a pastime.” As technology become increasingly sophisticated, the path from scientific discovery to product becomes more time-consuming, more expensive, and more uncertain. With a global force, science can advance more rapidly and research becomes a personal endeavor for many. Citizen scientists learn about the ways science directly affects our lives and understand its importance.

Citizen Science, Then and Now

Citizen science has a long and distinguished past. Data on temperature and humidity from French wine merchants in the 14th century is used in present models of climate change. In the 19th century, novice naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace did revolutionary work in evolutionary biology. These citizens were driven by enthusiasm, passion, and curiosity. Other examples include the polymath Benjamin Franklin, the monk Gregor Mendel, and the mathematician Ada Lovelace.

Citizen science today is used to record aspects of the environment people like and dislike. Ordinary men and women use their cell phones and sensors to record data on birds and butterflies as well as pollution and species loss. The Crowd & The Cloud is a documentary series that showcases the power of citizen science in the digital age. The show is directed by Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, who believes that, “Citizen science is as American as apple pie, with Founding Fathers Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson meticulously noting wind, rain, and temperature daily.” Ultimately, this show hopes to motivate viewers to partake in citizen science projects.


Foldit is an example of a successful citizen science project. Professor David Baker, a protein research scientist at the University of Washington, founded the Foldit project in 2008. The idea is that a protein’s structure can be determined from its chemistry. As each protein is built from a linear chain of amino acids, its shape will be the most stable configuration. Users must determine the protein-folding permutation that best fits. Scientists can then use these solutions to target diseases and create biological innovations. A 2010 paper in Nature credited Foldit’s 57,000 players with providing useful results that matched or outperformed algorithmically computed solutions.

The premise behind Foldit is that humans have spatial-reasoning capabilities unmatched by current computers, making protein-folding an intuitive visual endeavor. One top-ranked Foldit player told Nature in 2010 “It’s essentially a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.” “When you’ve got it right,” another player said, “you see your protein moving and changing shape, and your score rushes up. Your own player name rushes up through the ranks, and the adrenaline starts.”

Role of Citizen Science

Since Foldit, many more citizen science projects have been established. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at Princeton, developed Eyewire. This game involves participants in mapping neurons in the brain. Many citizen science projects have people collecting data, making observations, or exploring a solution space. However, there are efforts in which citizens drive science in parallel and in competition with professional academics. The Ronin Institute is an example of such an independent scholarly research institute. It provides an institutional affiliation, connections with fellow scholars, and support for conference travel and grant applications. You can also learn more about citizen science from our very own PLOS citizen science blog.

When people are doing something they are passionate about, they will do their best to produce a great product. It is exciting to see what discoveries will be uncovered through the aid of such citizen scientists.



  1. Haines-Stiles, G. (2017, March 9). The Crowd and the Cloud: A Director’s Take. Retrieved from:
  2. Buchan, K. (2016, July 3). Citizen science: how the net is changing the role of amateur researchers. Retrieved from:
  3. Xue, K. (2014, January 31). Popular Science. Retrieved from:
  4. Toerpe, K. (2013). The rise of citizen science. The Futurist47(4), 25

Featured Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech licensed under Creative Commons License 2.0 

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