The Personal and Societal Impacts of Citizen Science

I really liked this piece in Slate magazine on citizen science: “Want to Help Shape the Future?” by Darlene Cavalier and Jason Lloyd. They really hit home the idea that not only is it important for science that people everywhere contribute and participate in it, it’s also important for society and the individuals involved. The key takeaway for me is that citizen science helps people feel more in control of their lives.

In an increasingly complex world, we often find ourselves hearing from scientists their latest research related to our health, environment, food, and other critical areas of our lives. Sometimes we hear different research findings that seem to contradict each other. Or we read debates about whether one study is “fake” or biased or fabricated. In the midst of this, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and not trust any of it.

This is the opposite of how citizens in a modern society should be engaging with science. Scientific research shouldn’t be some opaque, external, unpredictable entity that comes out with complicated and foreboding forecasts, like an oracle on a mountain. It should be a clear and helpful guide that helps us make better decisions that effect our lives and the lives of those around us.

But to get there, people need to understand the basics of science and the scientific method of inquiry. Ideally this would happen in school when people are exposed to science, from grade school on up. It should happen when they visit science centers and museums. It should happen when they encounter media produced by scientists and science institutions.

But none of these can compare to the actual act of doing science. Of being a scientist.

That’s where citizen science comes in. Citizen science is based on the idea that anyone – not someone with an advanced degree or who wears a lab coat to work– anyone can do science. By participating in an active science research project, people gain a hands-on understanding of how science works, how it seeks to answer important questions. Whether its searching for exo-planets in distant galaxies, cataloging invasive plants in your local preserve, or measuring air quality in your neighborhood, people can engage in scientific inquiry, make discoveries, share them with others, and join a community of people who care about science.

This is why I’m so excited about my own work to support citizen science for youngsters around the country through Science Action Club. Because the younger we get people exposed to and engaged with science, the better equipped they will be to integrate scientific research into their lives as citizens throughout their lives. And the stronger we will be as a society, with millions of people understanding the importance of science in public policy decision making.

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