Empowering Public Participation - NASA Citizen Science Projects Propel DiscoveryBy: Fil Baloca, Contractor GSA Open Innovation 09 June 2023
Did you know that April is Citizen Science Month? Each year, the CitizenScience.Gov team celebrates the power of public participation in the scientific process to address real-world problems. Agencies across the federal government use community science and participatory research to create meaningful forms of scientific collaboration with the public.
This past April we held a spotlight chat featuring our partners at NASA to learn about their approach to participatory research. Leaders from two NASA sponsored projects, Are We Alone in the Universe? and Chesapeake Water Watch Project, shared how they collaborate between scientists and interested members of the public.
The Power of Citizen Science to Advance NASA’s Mission
NASA Astrophysicist and Citizen Science Officer Marc Kuchner gave an overview of how NASA works to make scientific discovery more transparent and to increase scientific inclusivity. They work with more than 2 million volunteers from 167 countries across the globe. “We are proud these volunteer projects are held to the same rigorous standards as any NASA science project,” Marc said. Twenty-three of those projects can be done by anyone, anywhere with just a laptop or cell phone.
Marc went on to describe accomplishments of NASA volunteers. “Through the projects more than 400 volunteers have become co-authors on refereed published papers all online on the website,” he said. There are currently 36 current projects open to the public to take part in. At least 12 NASA science teams have regular meetings with their volunteers. NASA’s volunteer science projects have come to dominate multiple scientific fields, having discovered:
- Most of the known comets
- All of the known samples of interstellar material
- Most of the ultracool brown dwarfs
- ⅓ of Kepler’s long period exoplanets.
Are We Alone In the Universe?
Astronomer Jean-Luc Margot from UCLA SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) spoke about Are We Alone in the Universe?, a research project that seeks the public’s help in finding signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. “Is there intelligent life on the other planets and if so, can we communicate with another civilization?”, he asked.
Finding another example of life of any kind outside of Earth is a high scientific priority and will significantly advance our understanding of living systems. One way to look for life in the universe is the search for technosignatures. There are millions of signals out in the world and the project tries to identify potential technosignatures from extraterrestrial civilizations. Since 2016, UCLA SETI has detected over 60 million radio signals, most of which are due to terrestrial technology. Volunteer scientists help classify these signals with the goal of identifying technosignatures from extraterrestrial civilizations. The project’s website is arewealone.earth.
Chesapeake Water Watch
The Chesapeake Bay is widely accessed and used for both recreational and economic purposes. The Bay has major ecological issues such as high algal blooms, sedimentation influxes, and pollution. Shelby Brown, Citizen Science Program Coordinator with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, described the efforts the Chesapeake Water Watch Project is taking to address these ecological issues. The project is a participatory science program where Chesapeake Bay locals are helping track the health of the Bay using their smartphones. Volunteers use a water quality app that estimates water clarity through the upload of three photos that can detect the reflectance of natural water bodies and then conclude various properties of the water. These measurements are used by researchers to help improve high resolution satellite images to accurately monitor the Bay.
“We recruit volunteers and process the data and water samples collected by them. The Bay is large and volunteers really help us cover it by being an extended part of the research team,” Shelby said. With support from NASA, the project is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the City College of New York.
After a little more than a year, the Chesapeake Water Watch project has had 900 observations from volunteers that are then validated in the lab. Along with that data, the remote sensing team from the City College of New York adjusts algorithms and cross-references the data from field scopes with the satellite data, which helps to improve the accuracy and resolution of the final image.
Celebrating Citizen Science
The celebration was a great way to learn about NASA’s participatory research projects and the impact volunteers have from many different professional backgrounds all over the world. As summarized by Marc, “We really need your help and each minute you spend on these is helping advance NASA science and we are grateful for the hours that people are contributing to the projects.”
NASA’s Citizen Science Page: https://science.nasa.gov/citizenscience
Publications by NASA volunteers: https://science.nasa.gov/citizenscience/publications
Are We Alone in the Universe project page: http://arewealone.earth/
Chesapeake Water Watch project page: https://serc.si.edu/citizen-science/projects/chesapeake-water-watch