CHICAGO — Conducting scientific research is often tedious and time-consuming, but someone had to do it.
Now, though, as many scientists have seen grant funding and resources shrink, they're exploring new ways of approaching their work, increasingly with the help of everyday amateurs and enthusiasts through what's known as citizen science.
The term was popularized in the 1990s, but the concept isn't new. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count, for example, where volunteers across the country help conduct an avian census, started in 1900.
Yet the ease with which people can learn about opportunities, participate and share data through the internet and social media has vastly expanded the possibilities of citizen science. Smartphones have propelled it even farther, as participants can upload their data with the touch of a button.
"I think it's really enabled citizen science to blossom and reach the place it is in today," said Jake Weltzin, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "They can go out with their phone in their pocket, collect it right then and there for real-time models so we can know exactly what's going on."
Laura Trouille, senior director of Citizen Science at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, said it's about engaging the public in a meaningful way and "working along with researchers who genuinely need their help."
"What's lovely is you don't need any special qualifications to be a citizen scientist," she said. "It's based on the fact that we all have this amazing ability to recognize patterns, and the researchers have data where they just need someone to recognize a pattern in it and let them know."
Chris Parson of Park Ridge, Illinois, always was interested in science and, after more than 20 years of selling women's apparel, he closed his shop at age 50, went back to school and got a master's degree in environmental studies. Now in his 70s, he spends his summers with Illinois RiverWatch, which trains volunteers to collect data on streams and rivers.
Parson also trains schoolteachers on projects they can incorporate in the classroom, like counting species of insect larvae, clams, leeches and other creatures that indicate water and habitat quality.
"I would say I'm a citizen scientist with the emphasis on citizen because I haven't taken a lot of biology classes and I haven't taken a lot of chemistry classes, but I really think that's the heart of RiverWatch," he said. "You collect scientific data in a rigorous way that will be useful to scientists by using people who are not (professionals)."
Matt von Konrat, head of botanical collections at the Field Museum, runs a "Collections Club" where volunteers process specimens and records, transcribe field notebooks and repackage plant specimens from the 1800s. Almost 10,000 people have generated 100,000 data points for the department, he said, which would have taken a post-doctorate candidate years.
"On one hand, we have all these specimens and we're trying to discover as rapidly as we can all this information," von Konrat said. "On the other hand, we're going through a massive extinction crisis and losing habitats faster than we can describe what's found."
While some studies utilize forums like Reddit, other organizations have their own platforms and websites, like Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal that grew out of a crowdsourced astronomy project called Galaxy Zoo.
Darlene Cavalier founded SciStarter, another citizen science web portal as a way to catalog projects and allow participants to track how their data contributes. The website has grown from a small blog to an international network.
"I wanted to find a way to help more people find these opportunities," she said.
Though widely accepted now for certain types of data gathering and research assistance, citizen science has met with plenty of skepticism over the years. Concerns about data quality were common, and it took years for the scientific community to recognize that citizen science could be useful beyond piquing the public's interest.
Trouille was among those skeptical at first. She was pursing a doctorate in astrophysics in 2008 when she heard about a Galaxy Zoo project.
The project involved a group of astronomers who had a data set of a million galaxies and needed people to classify each one as spiral, elliptical or two galaxies crashing together. Trouille herself had spent countless hours looking at such galaxy images and could identify them. But she questioned whether people without the same training and experience could do the same.
"I saw it as a wonderful tool for outreach and I saw it as a great way to get the public engaged in science, but I had a lot of misconceptions about the value added to the science itself, that you could really get useful results to use directly in your research," Trouille said.
Her doubts waned as she learned more. For example, the results were based on consensus, meaning that if 45 people looked at the same image and 90 percent independently classified it the same way, that would give researchers a sense of confidence the quality of the result was good.
"Now I totally see it does both," Trouille said. "It's a transformative tool for research."
Zooniverse has so far resulted in 120 peer-reviewed publications in its 10 years of existence, Trouille said. The first Galaxy Zoo article had a difficult time getting published because of the general skepticism about the research methods.
"Because it was in the field of astronomy, we have clearly made the case as a professional community that we know and understand how to do data quality and reliability," Trouille said.
Von Konrat said one of his biggest struggles is convincing his peers that citizen science is worthy. Sometimes researchers have misconceptions about the process or simply "have a very big ego," he said.
"People said, 'There's just no way a schoolchild could generate this type of data,'" von Konrat said. "I think often we have an overinflated opinion of ourselves, and it's just a matter of thinking about how you can connect with different audiences and communities. There's so much that we can do with technology that is out there now that with creative thought and careful instruction, we can convey the significance of what people are doing."
People who participate in beach cleanups and bird counts can actually see their work translated into science when researchers use the data they collect, said Timothy Hoellein, an assistant professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago who recently released a study on litter in the Great Lakes. By mobilizing volunteers who are already trained in careful record keeping, he can build data sets that he couldn't create without them.
"They're not just cleaning a local beach, they're making a contribution toward science," he said.
In the earlier days of citizen science, volunteers would submit observations on cards by mail. But Weltzin said this created myriad problems, including having to wait until all the cards were returned, interpreting people's handwriting and inconsistencies in how things like dates were recorded. And following up with volunteers was also challenging and time-consuming.
"People would be contributing data for years and years and would never really get much for it," Weltzin said. "But now you can turn the information right around, check their data and they can look at their own data."
With apps like Nature's Notebook, operated by the USA National Phenology Network, which studies seasonal changes in the natural world, volunteers fill in fields that are preset, which clears up inconsistencies and minimizes errors. Push notifications on apps also provide researchers with a way to send reminders or updates to volunteers.
"It's cheap, it's easy and it's quicker, and it's higher quality," Weltzin said.
Through such methods, an individual can report whether a lilac bush is leafing, and researchers can then compare it to local, state or regional results to see if the models they have created are accurate.
Last month's historic solar eclipse also provided many opportunities for citizen science.
One involved students conducting high-altitude balloon flights from 30 locations across the eclipse's path. The balloons sent live video and images from near space to the NASA website.
Another project involved citizens observing how animals responded during an eclipse. Participants downloaded an app and practiced making observations before joining the project and then submitting their observations before, during and after totality.
Very young children in particular can benefit from being involved in citizen science, because it can spark an early passion for science and expose them to how exacting and how rewarding the work can be, said Alison Paul, the Field Museum's youth conservation action manager.
"When it's done well, the outcomes are good for the participants, for the people who care to get jazzed up," Paul said. "It's also good for science and scientific knowledge and, ultimately, really good for nature, and the environment and the planet because we now have more of that knowledge."
Von Konrat said the future of the planet is dependent on scientific research and that "it's really important to share with communities (citizen science) can help address some really significant questions associated with climate change."
Parson said being an "ordinary Joe" citizen scientist has enriched his life. Now that he's learned how to gauge water and habitat quality, Parsons said he frequently walks into a stream and flips over a rock when he's traveling, just to take a look.