Science is easily thought to be the activity of an exclusive club, done behind the closed doors of the laboratory. To become a member, a person must sit through years of intense education and get a degree or two - preferably a doctoral degree with an indecipherable title. Citizen science challenges this notion by opening the doors of the lab and inviting people of all backgrounds to contribute to scientific problem solving on a voluntary basis.
The forerunner of citizen science projects is Foldit, a protein-folding challenge. Finding the molecular structure that correctly describes a functional protein is a huge computational challenge. Foldit attacks this problem by presenting protein folding as an online puzzle. Thousands of people have taken part in the project and their efforts have lead to real breakthroughs in science. With Foldit, the capabilities of laymen have been shown to be unquestionable.
Foldit uses the human abilities of spatial understanding and pattern matching to solve the problems. A project called EyeWire aims to do the same in the quest to map out neutrons in the eye. Another typically human trait to use in citizen science is pattern recognition. Humans have an easy time classifying objects and this is utilised in the plethora of science projects in Zooniverse, a citizen science hub.
The past few years have seen an explosion in citizen science projects, and the sheer quantity of these speaks volumes about the promise citizen scientists hold for solving some of the big science challenges out there.
Science At Home has two big reasons for using citizen scientists. For one, the Quantum Moves project has shown the aptitude of laymen to solve complex quantum physics problems and make significant contributions to our big goal of building a large-scale quantum computer. When we understand deeper how humans turn a hugely complicated problem into something manageable - and then solve it - we can build smarter algorithms to solve these problems.
Secondly, with the collaborations with cognitive scientists, social scientists and economists we have come to appreciate the wide spectrum of people taking part in the science projects. Reaching out globally to people of all backgrounds, ages and levels of education, we are able to gather huge and diverse datasets that make scientists sitting tight in their labs green with envy.
Gamification is one of the most important tools for scientists making their science problems tangible for a layman. It essentially means the process of turning a problem into a game. The game can simply visualise the problem and define the toolbox a citizen scientist can use to attack a puzzle. On the other extreme, a science problem can be turned into game that hides all traces of the underlying science problem and makes gamer forget that she is solving a science problem in the first place.
Games are a very convenient way of presenting problems to the public. The hands-on approach means that a player is not required to understand the complicated scientific theories behind the puzzle. Moreover, people are intrinsically interested in games, as shown by the statistic that games are played for 3 billion hours every week around the world. This is a resource worth tapping into!