Citizen scientists to the rescue

EPFL Summer series: How science works. From data collection to environmental and public-health advocacy, amateur scientists make a valuable contribution to scientific research.
A food DNA sequencing workshop held by EPFL’s Digital Epidemiology Lab in 2019 © Alain Herzog / EPFL

It’s 6:30pm on Tuesday, 29 June. From the couch in my Geneva apartment, I’m working on a project for EPFL’s Digital Epidemiology Lab – even though I know nothing about epidemiology and nobody at the lab even knows I’m taking part. But as an engaged citizen, I can lend a hand – or at least a finger, by clicking on the mouse button.

My contribution consists of going through tweets that mention COVID-19. Here’s one about a dream that turned into a nightmare; one about a town announcing that a new segment of the population could get vaccinated; one discussing concerns that the vaccine could lower male fertility; and one relaying a news article on how the Zambian government is worried about dwindling oxygen supplies. My job is to categorize each tweet. Is it related to the COVID-19 pandemic – yes or no? And if so, what level of anxiety does it convey – very low, low, neutral, high or very high? I decide as I go. Scientists will use this information to develop a better system for monitoring the flood of information coming in about the pandemic, improve their algorithms and filter content more effectively. Over 88,000 tweets have been classified so far.

Darwin worked from home, too

Citizens’ active contribution to scientific research, along the lines of my own tweet sorting, is known as participative science, collaborative science or citizen science. “It’s not really new,” says Jérôme Baudry, a tenure-track assistant professor at EPFL’s Laboratory for the History of Science and Technology. Indeed, nature lovers back in the 18th and 19th centuries did a similar thing when they counted birds and flowers. As do amateur astronomers. For that matter, working from home wasn’t invented in 2020: Darwin, for example, conducted his botany research, physiological experiments and systematic observations from his own living room – or kitchen.

«The more we can get citizens involved in the production of knowledge, the more likely they are to understand science and accept its findings.»      Jérôme Baudry

It wasn’t until the 20th century that research became confined to laboratories. “Citizen science took a back seat to laboratory research in the 20th century,” says Baudry. “But now, even a novice can help out with protein analyses and fundamental physics calculations. Participatory approaches like these have been getting more attention from the press and research institutes over the past 20 years. It’s part of the broader issue of how science and society interact. Citizen science is seen as a way to bridge the gap between the two worlds. The more we can get citizens involved in the production of knowledge, the more likely they are to understand science and accept its findings.”

Reigniting an old flame

So how exactly can laymen help further scientific knowledge? In a 2019 research paper, about a study run at the University of Geneva, Baudry and his colleagues listed five ways: sensing (e.g., by locating toad habitats), computing (e.g., by searching for extraterrestrial intelligence through the SETI@home project), analyzing (e.g., by classifying tweets), self-reporting (e.g., by providing medical or environmental data), and making (e.g., by building things at hackerspaces, makerspaces and other open innovation laboratories). The amount of citizen effort required varies considerably from one approach to the next. Citizens can simply let scientists use some or all of their computers’ processing power – as EPFL did for the Folding@Home project in spring 2020, which aimed to simulate how proteins fold over on themselves in order to develop a targeted treatment against the new coronavirus. Or they can get their hands dirty out in the field, such as by recording urban noise with the NoiseCapture app developed under an EU-funded project called ENEGIC-OD and used by EPFL’s Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG).

The citizens who participate are usually either science junkies (like yours truly) or, more frequently, enthusiasts who already know something about the field. “We found a small group of people who were very knowledgeable,” says Stéphane Joost, the LASIG senior scientist who led the toad-locating project, called UrbanGene, where citizens were asked to indicate toad habitats on an interactive map of Geneva Canton. Baudry explains: “These are often people who have a scientific background but don’t work as professional researchers. Thanks to citizen science, they can get back in touch with what they loved doing as a student.” The gender of participants is also related to the discipline covered in the study, as well as to how they feel about technical topics and working with machines. “When it comes to distributed calculations for mathematics, physics or astronomy, over 80% of the volunteers are men,” says Baudry. “But studies related to nature tend to attract more women.”

«We found a small group of people who were very knowledgeable.»      Stéphane Joost

Citizens’ contributions are a huge help to scientists, who don’t usually have the resources to hire such an extensive labor force – especially one that’s so well distributed geographically and over time, and that’s so highly motivated. “Over 1,200 people took part in our UrbanGene project,” says Joost. “Thanks to their efforts, we were able to identify several ponds that hadn’t been mapped before because they’re located on private property. That let us create unique maps of the links among the region’s flora and fauna.”

Limitations and a bright outlook

As enthusiastic as scientists may be to open up their research projects, they face some limitations. Tasks involving personal data, for example, require highly detailed consent forms. “Without data, we can’t make progress on the energy transition,” says Jordan Holweger, a PhD student at EPFL’s Photovoltaics and Thin Film Electronics Laboratory. “But Switzerland has very few energy datasets open to the public. Scientists often aren’t allowed to publish their data, which end up in a data graveyard – that’s what happened with the data I collected for my thesis.” But Holweger has an idea for getting around that problem: he suggests creating a website where citizens can enter their power consumption figures, making the data freely available to scientists. Holweger’s inspiration came out of a hackathon held by red lab, an organization that promotes dialogue and joint initiatives to support smart cities and the energy transition.

Another limitation to citizen science is that it’s often a top-down process where scientists typically bring in volunteers only after they’ve formulated their hypotheses and exclude citizens from the report-writing and sometimes even data-analysis steps. One exception is the fourth approach identified in Baudry’s paper – self-reporting – which also entails the highest level of engagement. “In this approach, citizens themselves recognize the importance of a given issue, which may be related to the environment or public health, for example, and pressure the scientific community into researching it further,” says Baudry. In the 1980s for instance, the AIDS organization ACT UP worked to make experimental treatments available for widespread testing. And citizens often alert policymakers to environmental contamination incidents, either localized or systemic. “They may not necessarily find a solution, but they do help lay the problem out on the table,” says Baudry. The kitchen table or lab table?