December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Citizen participation in science has never been stronger, but what happens when the Cit gets extreme? ...


The future of science that Prof Muki Haklay, of the Extreme Citizen Science group, laid out in his lecture will terrify scientists. According to him, the future belongs to the layman scientist who not only forms and solves a problem, but publishes the journal piece.

The idea of ‘subordinate labourers’ (a term used by William Whewell for non-scientists collecting pearls for study) taking science further seems unlikely to succeed, but consider the case of Encarta. In 1993 the quite brilliant encyclopaedia was born by carefully orchestrated experts, and in 2009 it died by them. Its usurper was unthinkable at the time – an online free-for-all information source manned by volunteers. Wikipedia, though it paid no wages, and demanded no degrees, has experienced such a high level of success that it’s become a verb.

The Extreme Citizen Science group at UCL intend to expand this recent trend for participation. They want to take it beyond the classic picture of upper-middle-class Europeans and North Americans logging songbirds in their gardens.

For example, in one project they’re developing a pictogram-GPS system in collaboration with a tribe of Pygmy hunter-gatherers to identify and protect endangered plants. It can be recharged in a cooking pot.

In another case, Dr Beau Lotto wrote a paper in collaboration with a group of 25 children aged 8-10 on spatial recognition in bees. The paper was published in ‘kid-speak’, replete with wax crayon diagrams, by Biological Letters in December 2010.

During the question section after the lunch hour lecture, Prof Haklay was asked what changes Extreme Citizen Science might portend for scientists. He took a long pause, and answered: “The current method allows scientists to stay safe as pearl collectors. But becoming more engaged forces them to admit: ‘I don’t know more about your specific experience’” – or your scientific experience, it would seem.

Science for everyone by everyone – the re-emergence of citizen science took place on 22 January 2013 at UCL


IMAGE: Extreme Citizen Science group, UCL