Science is not just for scientists. There are ways that everyone can be involved and contribute.
Caren Cooper Author of “Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery.” She is Associate Professor in Forestry & Environmental Resources at NC State; in the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Leadership in Public Science; and runs “Sparrow Swap” citizen science through her lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at
you growing up my brothers and I used to play basketball in the driveway and no one expected that we develop a career in athletics we simply played right not thinking about a career sports were simply fun they were healthy social sports were the kind of hobby that could enrich the rest of our lives and the same is true for arts yet when I played it science down by the creek everyone expected that I'd become a scientist I guess no one thought it was fun or healthy not social science wasn't seen as the kind of hobby that could enrich the rest of my life science was confined to the category of career kids that like science should grow up to be scientists and that was a good thing because without professional scientists there'd be no discoveries and I wanted to make discoveries and so I became a professional scientist but eventually I learned that everyone was a little right but mostly wrong about those expectations science of course is a profession but science is also a hobby science is also a hobby and how that profession and the hobby interact is the topic of the conversation today because there's some long-standing stereotypes about science that it's lofty that it's separate from the rest of us and that separateness exists because unlike athletics and art which take place in public view science typically takes place out of sight behind closed doors with science you have to choose which side of the door to be on and you're either all in or you're out and if you're all in then you get the privilege and the responsibility to advance knowledge you get to be special but what if we end the stereotype of scientist as special by changing in a fundamental way by eliminating the door by making it a collaboration between professional scientists and people who choose other careers like you and you even you what if science were visible and accessible what would the world be like if science happened out in the open every day everywhere if you saw a spider today stand up so I can see you if you saw a spider stand okay so stay standing I want you to be joined by if you saw an ant today stand and stay standing if you saw if you smelled exhaust from traffic fumes used an app to record your sleep cycle or your heartrate we're concerned about the quality of your tap water if you used your phone to take a photo this week than stand okay so look around all of you are curious concerned observant of your surroundings each of you have the makings of a citizen scientist yet be seated to have a just and sustainable world we need to adopt a new cultural norm in which being a responsible person on this planet means that we observe our surroundings with intention like you do and we share what we see hear smell find right then we report when we see hummingbirds return to our feeder we monitor the streams that run through our local parks we track the air quality in our school yards that we and our devices become part of a network taking the pulse of the planet and with it a new type of scientist emerges not one that's separate from us but one that ends the hierarchy ones who helps build and tend these networks ones that help us make sense of all that information so that the tiny everyday activities of ordinary people can be brought together to be forces of discovery this type of science isn't about individual heroes gaining credit it's about all of us gaining insight this type of science is similar to democracy right in democracy we use the term citizen to refer to those who have rights and responsibilities to participate in a larger collective governance we might petition and rally and engage deeply in a number of ways but the core thing the simplest action is that we cast a vote in our individual vote it may feel insignificant but cumulatively it makes leadership change and so with citizen scientists that term is used to refer to people anywhere on this planet of any nationality living anywhere who assert their rights and responsibilities to participate in collective inquiry collective discoveries and we might pose hypotheses or analyze results or engage deeply in a number of ways but the core and the simplest thing we can do is to share data and our individual data may feel insignificant but collectively it has the power to make discoveries that change the world we know what democracy looks like this is what citizen science looks like it's it is citizen science is a movement that is challenging us to rethink how knowledge is made who makes it where that happens and who it serves citizen science is about the power of crowds in which everyone does their small part instead of having to rely on the heroics of an individual and Einstein and even Einstein acknowledged science is a wonderful thing especially when one doesn't have to earn one's living at it and we aren't far from citizen science as a new cultural norm it turns out the whole time I was becoming a professional scientist citizen science was near me but it didn't have a name and began it was hard to notice because it didn't fit the stereotype of scientist as special citizen science was nameless with monarch butterflies when I was in the fifth grade scientist had recently discovered that monarch butterflies migrate from the Midwest all the way to Mexico in the fall and return in the spring and I daydreamed about what it would be like to be that special scientist to solve such a mystery but it turns out that discovery was possible because of thousands of people who had been capturing and tagging monarchs for decades and that first tagged monarch spotted in Mexico had been tagged by a school teacher in Minnesota with two of his teenage students and people went on to continue to capture and tag monarchs and make more and more discoveries including our knowledge today that this migratory population of monarchs is declining rapidly citizen science was nameless with bears my first college job was a zoology internship studying bears in the mountains of North Carolina and we would capture bears and tranquilize them like the one in this picture so that we could put radio collars on them and track their movements and it was labor-intensive work and it was helped out by hundreds of volunteers over the years who rotated in by the Dozen for three weeks at a time coordinated by a organization called Earth watch and for me as a budding scientist this was a confusing time right because on the one hand it was affirming this idea this stereotype that scientists were special because here were people who were paying to spend their vacations doing the hard work of science but on the other hand here are these people that I could see had the same dedication and commitment as the professional scientists citizen science was nameless with Falcons my second college internship was releasing peregrine falcons back into the wild after they had been bred in captivity and we were doing this reintroduction because peregrine falcon populations had crashed from the use of the pesticide DDT which thinned their eggshells well scientists were able to figure out that DDT thinned their eggshells by comparing eggs with those that were collected a long time ago before the manufacturing of DDT and those eggshells were thick well non-professionals had collected those eggs and donated them to museums right it used to be a hobby to collect beautiful wild bird eggs and citizen science was nameless with songbirds when I was in graduate school British scientists discovered that songbirds were already laying their eggs earlier because of climate change and in making the case for the Kyoto Protocol the British government relied on that study to argue that that climate change wasn't some future problem but that it was a now problem an urgent problem because it was already affecting life on Earth and it made me proud to become a scientist but I learned years later when I interviewed the lead researcher for that study for my book citizen science how ordinary people are changing the face of discovery that that entire dataset of tens of thousands of nesting records was collected by bird watchers across England over decades I learned of discovery after discovery that was possible because of citizen science volunteers and yet it went unrecognized and not only were we failing to recognize the valuable contributions of citizen scientists we were failing to recognize the limits of scientists and we can no longer ignore the fact that there are things that scientists will never ever be able to discover alone citizen science has a name now and its growth is inevitable because science has advanced in so many areas that to keep pushing some of those frontiers scientists need to learn to collaborate not just with each other but with everyone and that's how big discoveries have been made the entire field of oceanography was born from citizen science right there was no way that a single scientist no matter how special could study something so vast so in the 1800s the field of Oceanography was born from the coordinated efforts led by Matthew Fontaine Mallory who was in the Navy at the time and sailors from 13 countries and Maori crowd-sourced their standardized observations that they collected while they sailed and assembled it together to make an increasingly comprehensive series of wind and current charts like this one and these charts they made sailing safer and faster for everyone as one sailor wrote to Maori until I took up your work I had been traversing the ocean blindfolded citizen science can look like it's about volunteers in service to science but it's really about making sure that science is serving people helping humanity remove these blindfolds because we have we have lots of blindfolds still and citizen science can help us with those so even with our own Health and Environment we wear blindfolds we learned from peregrine falcons that their eggs can tell a story about the ubiquity of DDT so now I collaborate with citizen scientists in Sparrow Swap who are reviving the hobby of egg collecting so and every egg is unique and every egg tells a story because we spend we spend millions now searching for cures of cancer but relatively little to prevent cancer and there are known cancer-causing contaminants in the environment wouldn't it be nice to know where they are so we crowdsource for maps the way Maori did we crowdsource four OpenStreetMap and ways to help us navigate from point A to point B so now we're trying a crowd source for mapping contaminants in the environment and we hope that the patterning and the color of these eggs might help us do that and what's neat is when we bring together all these observations we see huge diversity and maybe eggs aren't your thing but how about warm and fuzzy things right because there's people all over the world who are setting out motion-sensitive cameras right and they're discovering mammals secretively living among them in their backyards in their school yards in their neighborhoods and it's super exciting for the people who are who are getting these observations but what's really powerful is that they're willing to share and so when those observations are brought together then we can see patterns that would otherwise remain invisible there's thousands of people who use low-cost rain gauges and they share their catch the amount of precipitation with a community collaborative rain hail and snow network daily and here's this is showing the maximum precipitation each day across the country and it's data like these that are more reliable for local forecasts than radar and there's people who are sharing observations of ladybirds in their gardens that's English for ladybugs in their backyards right and they're sharing these with the UK Lady Bird survey so here's a pattern of invasions of an exotic lady bird species into the UK in recent years this is citizen scientists sharing what they see this is citizen science taking the pulse of the planet and so how do we move forward how do we make citizen science the new norm make it a household phrase well to my scientist friends I say scientist friends let's start teaching our students our future scientists to be public scientists and that's what we've started doing at North Carolina State University we're teaching our graduate students to design and organize citizen science to manage big data to collaborate with the public and if you are pursuing other careers well you can play at the soccer field you can do art in the studio but citizen science you can do anywhere anytime as part of normal life right you can put a birdhouse in your backyard next to a rain gauge next to a sunflower that you watch for bees you can record your dog's behavior you can sample microbes in your showerhead and to make it easier for you to enter this world of citizen science I helped build size starter dot-com and darlene cavalier is the founder and director of size starter and she's a citizen scientist she's a former NBA cheerleader who enjoys science and we've made SCI starter an aggregator of projects most with over a thousand projects and they're mostly hosted by universities NGOs federal agencies and really no matter what your interest whether it's oceans frogs butterflies squirrels coal ash whatever it is we can help you find a project that's right for you and so if you join via my landing page then I can welcome you and then I can also watch and help you as you launch into this amazingly varied world of citizen science opportunities because as we sail forward into the future we're leaving a lot of problems in our wake and so the good news is that science is fun science is healthy and it's social it's a hobby that can enrich the rest of your life and science as a hobby is more accessible and more in need of you now than ever before so you can join this citizen science movement and help make it the new cultural norm you can be special along with millions of others thank you [Applause]