Citizen Scientists Generate Benefits for Researchers, Educators, Society, and Themselves

What, exactly, is a ‘‘citizen scientist’’? ‘‘The term ‘citizen scientists’ refers to volunteers who participate as    field    assistants    in    scientific    studies.    Citizen    scientists . are not paid for their assistance, nor are they necessarily even scientists.’’1 Two hundred years ago, everyone was a citizen scientist and made their living in another profession. Ben Franklin, who invented the lightning rod and bifocals, made his living as a printer, diplomat, and politician. Contrast that with today’s call from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service to ‘‘Be a Citizen Scientist’’ ( .pdf) and join its network of 230,000 trained severe-weather spotters.

In September 2011, you may have heard that an amazing event occurred: citizen scientists formulated a structure for a key enzyme related to the development of the AIDS virus by using FoldIt,2 an online game in which volunteers can shake, wiggle, or pull apart different pieces of a protein molecule ( It took these gamers a mere 2 years to crack a code that had eluded scientists. What you may not know is that this breakthrough was just the latest contribu- tion by citizen scientists, who are increasingly moving into the life sciences, and that FoldIt was created because of a project called Rosetta@home.3

Rosetta@home, like the more famous SETI@home that sorts through radio signals in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), harnessed volunteers’ unused computer power to research complex issues through so-called grid computing. When the volunteers noted to the researchers that they could do a better job of manipulating the molecule than the computer, the researchers developed the FoldIt program, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is interesting to note that most of the gamers didn’t have sophisticated knowledge of biology, but instead had good spatial reasoning skills—something that is difficult to emulate in a computer program. We don’t know yet whether these successful gamers have increased their knowledge of and improved their attitude toward science, but an earlier study may provide some clues.

Environmental science was one of the first fields to so- licit volunteers in projects such as the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900. The Birdhouse Network (TBN) is a more complex citizen scientist project involving the creation of nesting boxes and reporting on the behaviors of cavity-nesting birds such as swallows; interaction with TBN staff is encouraged. In a standardized evaluation of this project, the researchers determined that participants’ knowledge of bird biology increased, but they were unable to detect a significant increase in attitude toward science or the environment, or increased knowledge of the scientific process. As a result, the authors suggested, ‘‘Citizen-science projects that hope to increase understanding of the scientific process should be framed in a way that makes participants particularly aware of the scientific process in which they are becoming involved.’’4

How can we encourage more individuals to become citizen scientists? As we wrote in our last editorial about engaging the public in scientific discourse, how we frame the issue is key. Also important are the software and other tools that make participation easy. Most citizen scientists, such as those now becoming involved in genomic research, derive satis- faction from knowing that researchers will use the data they contribute. Science grant recipients will increasingly find public outreach requirements as a condition of funding, and should welcome the opportunity to engage citizens in a way that encourages participation.

As National Academies of Science researchers put it, ‘‘Citizen science has a number of benefits for four separate communities. For scientific researchers, it allows projects that were previously impossible to be done quickly and easily. For volunteers, it can provide fun, a sense of community, and the ability to contribute to science. For STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) educators, it can offer the opportunity for in- creased learning, a window into the process of science, and a chance to promote the idea that ‘I can do science.’ For society at large, it can build a closer connection between scientists and the public, and can result in a public with increased knowledge about science and scientific habits of mind.’’5

Given that anyone with Internet access has the potential to serve as a citizen scientist, we think that cybertherapy projects and citizen scientists are a good fit. We hope that you, our CYBER reader, will consider the benefits of engaging citizen scientists to the fullest extent possible in your work as you test and validate new virtual environ- ments and related technologies.

1. Cohn JP. Citizen science: Can volunteers do real research? BioScience 2008; 58:192–7.
2. Gamers succeed where AIDS researchers could not. Inter- national Business News, Sep. 20, 2011. art/services/print.php?articleid = 216916 (accessed Sep. 25, 2011).
3. Bonetta L. New citizens for the life sciences. Cell 2009; 138:1043–5.

4. Brossard D, Lewenstein B, Bonney R. Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science pro- ject. International Journal of Science Education 2005; 27: 1099–21.
5. Riddick MJ, Bracey G, Carney K, et al. Citizen science: Status and research directions for the coming decade. AGB Stars and Related Phenomenastro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, Vol. 2010, p.46P. 2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id = 454 (accessed Sep. 26, 2011).


Brenda K. Wiederhold


Build Trust, Engage People to Increase Understanding of Science

From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, the term ‘‘scien- tific literacy,’’ focused on public knowledge of science, came into vogue. From 1985 to the mid-1990s, the term ‘‘public understanding of science (PUS),’’ focused on public attitudes toward science, became the new paradigm. Both are so-called ‘‘deficit models,’’ in which researchers assume that the public is deficient in knowledge, attitude, or trust. From 1995 to the present, the focus has shifted to the deficits of the scientists in communicating with the public, with public en- gagement the perceived way to rebuild public trust and achieve a social consensus on controversial scientific issues.1 Education is only a part of the solution, as a recent meta- analysis across cultures showed a small positive correlation between knowledge and attitudes.2

The deficit model overlooks the roles of ideology and social identity, as well as the roles of science fiction and entertain- ment on certain topics such as cloning. The public engagement model of the last decade features, for example, consensus conferences in which stakeholders participate in evaluation and decision making.3 However, such engagement may have unintended consequences, such as the formation of a watch- dog advocacy group to monitor nanotechnology in the com- munity.4 A recent analysis of such upstream engagement showed that, with the exception of the UK Nanojury and Nanodialogues, most projects studied by the authors did not go beyond consensus formation or measuring public opinion. However, if people cannot translate participatory approaches into a political process, there could be a backlash, such as that created in Europe against genetically modified food.5

Moreover, the deficit model ignores how people use media to learn about science. In the absence of strong motivation to acquire knowledge, they will use mental shortcuts, person- ally held values, and feelings as a basis for their beliefs about a scientific issue. In addition, people are drawn to new sources of knowledge that reinforce their current beliefs. Certainly, opinion leaders have a talent for providing great ‘‘sound bites’’ that may oversimplify or contradict scientific evidence, such as promising that food biotech will put an end to world hunger.3

There is a need for truthful sound bites, however, as people need to hear about science in ways that make the results personally relevant and meaningful. As scientists, we must learn to focus on framing our messages to connect with di- verse audiences. If we do not, other groups surely will, as the framing of the food biotech issue in Europe as a Pandora’s box of unknown risks helped stall progress on such research in some countries.6

In a new book on science communication, social scientist Matthew Nisbet at American University in Washington, DC, writes:
A generalizable set of factors, principles, and social meanings appear over and over again across science debates. These generalizable features reveal important clues about the inter- section between media frames and audience dispositions, the role of journalistic routines in altering the definition of an is- sue, and how science policy decisions are made. However, in order to put theory and principles into or- ganizations should work with communication researchers to commission surveys, focus groups, and other analyses that can identify effective messages and media platforms. Drawing on the typology of frames presented, on any particular issue, re- search needs to pinpoint the mental associations and cognitive schema that make a complex science topic accessible and personally meaningful for a targeted audience along with the particular framework devices that instantly translate these intended meanings.7

As we identify media platforms for our science messages, we must remember that social networking sites are changing the way that people get their science information. For ex- ample, members of an online community of experts can tweet a critique of a linked article from a peer-reviewed journal to their followers, bloggers may notice and comment on the controversy, and a new online op-ed piece may be created that provides additional context to the reader of the original article. Companies are beginning to take advantage of the social media properties of the Internet via Web sites that link to their Facebook pages and YouTube channels, and feature blogs and discussion groups. Patient advocacy group and special interest group Web sites are intended to frame policy debates or news coverage, and some science blogs blend science with religion.

As clinicians and scientists, we must be vigilant not to feed into the cycle of hype. We must withstand commercial pres- sure, temper our own hopes for a technology in our reporting, and under-promise results to pave the road to public trust and engagement.


1. Bauer MW, Allum N, Miller S. What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expan- ding the agenda. Public Understanding of Science 2007; 16: 79–95.
2. Allum N, Sturgis P, Tabourazi D, Brunton-Smith I. Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: A meta-analysis. Public Understanding of Science 2008; 17:35–54.

3. Bubela T, Nisbet MC, Borchelt R, Brunger F, Critchley C, Einsiedel E, Geller G, Gupta A, Hampel J, Hyde-Lay R, Jandciu WE, Jones SA, Kolopack P, Lane S, Lougheed T, Nerlick B, Ogbogu U, O’Riordan K, Ouellette C, Spear M, Strauss S, Thavaratnam T, Willemse L, Caulfield T. Science communication reconsidered. Nature 2009; 27:514–18.
4. Powell M, Kleinman DL. Building citizen participation in nanotechnology decision-making: The democratic virtues of the consensus Conference model. Public Understanding of Science 2008; 17:329–48.
5. Kurath M, Gisler P. Informing, involving or engaging? Science communication, in the ages of atom-, bio- and
nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science 2009;
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print/53611/ (accessed September 6, 2011). 7. Nisbet MC. (2010) Framing science: A new paradigm in
public engagement. In Kahlor L, Stout PA, eds. Communicating science: New agenda in communication. New York: Routledge, ch. 2, pp. 40–67.


Brenda K. Wiederhold