Editorial: Crowdsourcing science

A group of Russian space enthusiasts has shown the world how citizen science can contribute to scientific advancement. They have spotted in an image four objects that supposedly belong to the defunct Russian Mars 3 spacecraft that landed on the Red Planet on December 2, 1971. The four objects — parachute, heat shield, terminal retrorocket and lander — that resemble the Mars 3 mission were identified in an image taken by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. They are seen in a follow-up image as well. Thanks to the amateurs, the Mars 3 lander, which transmitted signals for 14.5 seconds before falling silent, has come alive in a different way. Since nearly 2,500 computers were required for viewing the high resolution image, crowdsourcing was resorted to. This is not the first time that crowdsourcing has been used for solving complex scientific problems. The concept was popularised way back in 1999 by the SETI@home project at the University of California, Berkeley; the project was to search for alien signals from radio telescope data. The August 2010 discovery of a rare pulsar (PSR J2007+2722), the first astronomical object to be found through volunteer computing, attracted worldwide attention. Today, hundreds of citizen science projects have been completed and many more are in different stages of completion. In the past few years, citizen science has evolved tremendously; current projects require active participation in the form of collecting data from the field, in much the same way scientists do. The concept has become acceptable and popular among scientists of late. In fact, researchers are using citizen science to justify and improve the possibility of getting funding. That hundreds of papers based on citizen science data have been published in reputed journals, including Science, is proof of how traditional science has come to accept the model.

It is difficult to say who stands to gain the most by involving non-scientists in scientific endeavours. While the benefits reaped by researchers and science are immediately visible, the wider gain will become tangible only in the long run. The most important immediate impact of well-planned projects is inculcating and building the spirit of inquiry and rigour. Except for a few projects, it is a pity that scientists in India have yet to tap the latent talent. When designed and executed properly, citizen science projects can turn out to be an excellent way of getting students to do real science and learn the basics of how research is carried out. This will surely turn out to be a good way of attracting students to science. What is India waiting for?

Published in The Hindu on April 23, 2013