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Partnership with the public

Scientific research conducted with the participation of non-scientists is gaining ground

Alvaro Minguito / FLICKR /MediaLab-Prado MediaLab-Prado Laboratory, in Spain…Alvaro Minguito / FLICKR /MediaLab-Prado

Moments before the total eclipse of the sun passed over the United States from coast to coast on August 21, 2017, the U.S. National Space Agency (NASA) invited the public to collaborate in a fairly simple experiment. Armed with thermometers and smartphones, thousands of volunteers throughout the country were instructed to download an app and record any environmental temperature changes during the eclipse. Participants were also asked to report whether the speed and direction of clouds underwent any abrupt changes. The information gathered by the cell phones supplied a foundation of science that will be used for environmental studies. “The public can help us understand the effects that a rare event, like the solar eclipse, has on the atmosphere,” Elizabeth MacDonald, a researcher from the Agency, told TV network Fox News.

This initiative is inspired by a model known as citizen science, which encourages the production of knowledge through collaboration between researchers and the general public. The participation of amateurs in scientific activity is not new–the figure of the professional scientist only appeared in the 19th century. In recent decades, with the use of digital technologies, researchers have repeatedly asked the public to cooperate, for example, in gathering meteorological data or in the mapping of species. “Social media, electronic databases and devices such as tablets and smartphones offer new ways of sharing ideas and information between scientists and citizens,” notes biologist Robert Stevenson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, in the United States, who studies the phenomenon of citizen science.

In recent years, organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), in the United States, have begun to support projects that include citizen science and studies designed to discover best practices to ensure scientific integrity in research conducted in collaboration with the public. Last year, the European Commission promised to finance projects involving citizen science through the Horizon 2020 program. This initiative is a partnership with Doing it Together Science, a consortium formed by scientific institutions and non-governmental organizations under the auspices of University College London, in the United Kingdom. In Brazil, the Information System on Brazilian Biodiversity (SiBBr), a project of the federal government, announced in February 2017 that it will support the formation of a Brazilian Network of Citizen Science in Biodiversity, in which citizens will help in monitoring species.

Alvaro Minguito / FLICKR /MediaLab-Prado …where researchers and the public work togetherAlvaro Minguito / FLICKR /MediaLab-Prado

Some successful experiences that have attained global proportions in recent years inspired these new projects. One of them is eBird, an initiative begun in 2002 by Cornell University in the United States, which collects information on birds provided by amateur birdwatchers and ornithologists. The platform has more than 300,000 users from 252 countries and some 300 million records on approximately 10,300 species of birds. A Brazilian version of eBird has been in operation since 2015 (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue no. 245). “In its 16 years, eBird has become a reference in bird studies and generates knowledge capable of helping draft strategies for biodiversity conservation,” affirms Stevenson.

Another initiative is the Galaxy Zoo, created by researchers associated with several U.S. institutions who invite amateur astronomers to help classify images of galaxies generated by telescopes. Since its launch in 2007, the Galaxy Zoo community has identified a group of galaxies and many of these discoveries were reported in scientific articles. Astronomy may be the field of knowledge in which public participation has been going on the longest. “After publication of the works by Italian Galileo Galilei, civil societies devoted to stargazing began to appear,” comments Augusto Damineli, a professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of the University of São Paulo (IAG-USP). Currently, with the increased access to small telescopes and the circulation of satellite images on specialized sites, amateur astronomy is participating in the identification of stars, asteroids and planets. In early 2017, Australian mechanic and amateur astronomer Andrew Grey discovered a system formed by four exoplanets, after evaluating more than 1,000 images of stars made by NASA’s Kepler telescope, which were made available on the internet by the platform Exoplanet Explorers. This accomplishment was validated by professional astronomers and led to the publication of a paper, with Grey as co-author.

national park service (NPS) | Sylvia Kantor/Washington state university In the United States, volunteers help scientists monitor butterflies (left), pollinizing insects (center) and even goats that live in a national parknational park service (NPS) | Sylvia Kantor/Washington state university

“I myself have published as a co-author with non-academics,” emphasized Damineli. In 2014, he coordinated a study on the blackout of Eta Carinae, a system composed of two stars, recorded that year. “It was necessary to observe it every night over the course of 10 straight months, using a spectroscope,” he says. “We put out an international call, asking for the collaboration of amateur astronomers and received help from four volunteers in New Zealand and in Australia.” The observation data were essential for describing a new phenomenon, the formation of a hole on the surface of the star (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue no. 244).

One of the principal contributions of the public’s collaboration in research is the production of information that might not have been generated otherwise–partly because the initiatives have the potential to mobilize a large number of volunteers in collecting data over extensive areas and during long periods. But this model still faces resistance. “Many researchers are afraid of working with people without scientific backgrounds,” affirms Stevenson. One of the reasons, he explains, is the mistrust in relation to the quality of the data produced. “Citizen science projects have to adopt strict procedures to ensure the validity of data.” For researcher Andrea Wiggins of the University of Maryland in the United States, successful projects such as eBird depend on a set of methodologies capable of increasing the accuracy of the data. “It involves offering volunteers technical training so they can perform the tasks proposed by the scientists. In addition, the data collected by the citizens has to be examined by specialists,” wrote Wiggins in an article published in 2016.

At the Federal University of the ABC (UFABC), a group of researchers proposes, applies and evaluates protocols to guide the work of volunteers on citizen science projects. “We prepare step-by-step instructions that show participants, in clear and objective language, the goals of the research and the recommendations that should be followed during the work,” explains biologist Natália Pirani Ghilardi-Lopes, coordinator of the Citizen Science Research Group of UFABC. According to her, the purpose is to establish standards so that data gathering and analysis is conducted as accurately as possible. This methodology has been tested in some group studies. One of them is the Master’s degree thesis of biologist Larissa de Araújo Kawabe, which involves data obtained from the Tupinambás Ecological Station, on the northern coastline of São Paulo State. This project relies on the participation of station employees who are divers and who, supplied with subaquatic cameras, help to collect images of the rocky shores along Palmas Island. The objective is to monitor marine organisms such as algae and sponges.

Eduardo Cesar Amateur birdwatchers participate in a research activity at Butantan Institute in São PauloEduardo Cesar

Later, in order to analyze the photos, the participants undergo four hours of training–one of the protocol guidelines. “We explain to them how the photographs were obtained and how they should be analyzed later,” says Larissa. She emphasizes that the volunteers participate not only in taking the photographs, but also in identifying the organisms. Studies such as these, for example, can serve to promote early detection of the presence of exotic species, such as the sun coral, which was photographed at the ecological station. This is a species that is spreading along the Brazilian coastline, competing against native species.

A good part of the projects involves the public exclusively in data collection, but some researchers see other ways for amateurs to participate. according to social scientist Sarita Albagli, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Science and Technology Information (Ibict), it is possible to identify two major approaches to citizen science. The first uses volunteers to increase the speed and quantity of data collected. “The second also promotes the involvement of citizens in the discussion about the research questions and objectives themselves, based on the knowledge obtained from their experiences,” affirms Albagli, who coordinated a project in Ubatuba that sought to incorporate that definition of citizen participation into the research. For Stevenson, of the University of Massachusetts, involving the public in all the stages of research is not always feasible. “There are topics that do not attract as much interest from the public and others that require a great deal of training time and dedication,” he says.

Some international experiences have encouraged more in-depth interactions. One of these is MediaLab-Prado, a cultural space created 10 years ago by the municipal government of Madrid, Spain, known for the spread of a citizen laboratory model. Researchers, activists and citizens come together to investigate possible solutions to problems, in different lines of research, such as urbanism, social participation and social technologies. “Through public notices, that initiative began to promote collaborative research experiences and social innovation that were called citizen laboratories,” explains Henrique Parra, a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), currently conducting postdoctoral research at the Spanish National Research Council.

UFABC Employees at the Tupinambás Ecological Station, on the northern coastline of São Paulo State, dive alongside researchers to collect data on marine organismsUFABC

Anyone who has a research proposal may compete under the public calls by MediaLab-Prado. If the project is approved, the participant will become part of a network of academic and non-academic collaborators, who will be able to help develop the work. Antonio Lafuente, a researcher at the Human and Social Sciences Center of the Spanish National Research Council and one of the directors of MediaLab-Prado, explains that the idea is to create environments in which problems can be identified, documented and contrasted with different points of view. “An enormous amount of knowledge emerges outside universities and research institutions. This is no longer a matter of separating the world into those who know and those who do not know, but rather of combining experiences,” proposes Lafuente.

Despite their specific nature, other initiatives similar to MediaLab-Prado seek to propose broader forms of scientific collaboration. For example, Public Lab appeared after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. In light of the lack of official information on the disaster, residents along the southern coast of the United States, in partnership with researchers and engineers, built small monitoring systems using balloons and digital cameras to collect imagens in real time. More than 100,000 high resolution aerial images were produced. This episode led to the creation of an open community, the Public Lab, which is today supported by donations from institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the NSF.