Science museums should aim beyond education, to citizen science

Child watches butterflies in an interactive museum butterfly room. Photo (C) Paige Brown. As my summer internship at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) comes to a close, I’ve had some great learning experiences and opportunities to see the behind-the-scenes operation of a museum.

As issues such as global climate change and evolution increasingly dominate public debate, museums are finding their role as educators growing in importance, the Boston Globe reports. – Philanthropy News Digest, 2006

I think science museums are an incredibly valuable resource for public education and engagement in science research. Let’s face it, there aren’t many instances of high school students and members of the general public walking into science labs on university campuses to experience science in action. But in the museum environment, especially in a place like the Nature Research Center at NCMNS, museum goers can interact with live exhibits and gaze into glass laboratories where scientists are dusting off dinosaur bones, extracting DNA from leafhopper insects and remotely tracking bird migration across the continent.

Research studies have even shown that science museums can have important impacts on science literacy of the greater community served by that museum, and can impact public understanding, attitudes and behaviors toward science and technology.

“The holy grail of science museums is not to provide someone all the knowledge they need, but to inspire them, to become a launching point,” John Falk, an OSU professor of science education, was quoted in an Oregon State press release on a research study of a California science center. “There is a growing appreciation that Americans learn most of what they know about science outside of school. […] Institutions like science museums can play an important part in that.”

But even more than education and one-way information flow from museum scientists and staff to the public, I see the real value of museums in public engagement and citizen science. While it’s great for scientists to be able to leave jargon behind and get up on a stage to talk to the public about the discovery of new animal species, I think this should be only the beginning of museum efforts to engage the public in science.

One-way communication, even if scientists are answering public questions about science and the process of discovery, is a traditional yet dated model of engagement. Interactive museum exhibits and “citizen science” projects, where community members are encouraged, for example, to bring in samples from their backgrounds for museum scientists to analyze for microscopic creatures, get a bit closer to the goals I think science centers should have in mind.

I interviewed Ian Lipkin, Director of the Center for Infection & Immunity at Columbia University and science advisor for several TV shows and films including Contagion (2001), for an upcoming article in EMBO Reports on science in science fiction. Lipkin gave me the following quote for that article:

“The NIH budget is now down 10.5%, and there’s a plan in the house to reduce it another 18%, so we are really trying as hard as we can to find ways to get people who are involved in making decisions, from the voter to the lawmaker, to appreciate the fact that we do need science, and it’s only by popularizing science that we have any hopes of achieving that.”

Lipkin appropriately points out the need for scientists to step outside of the “Ivory Tower” and engage with the public, whether that be through traditional educational outreach programs, science centers or Hollywood movies and video games. Getting people to interact with scientific concepts in museum citizen science projects, and even inside the home through video games, is a step in the right direction toward a future more “scientific” America.

But why can’t museums go even further than this? Why can’t museum scientists get members in their communities involved with science on a closer level, involved with actually conducting science? This, I believe, is a goal of citizen science projects cropping up in museums across the world.

A citizen scientist is a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry. Projects that involve citizen scientists are burgeoning, particularly in ecology and the environmental sciences, although the roots of citizen science go back to the very beginnings of modern science itself. – A new dawn for citizen science, 2009

But I think the citizen science project can and should go beyond the occasional collection of backyard mosses for museum analysis. Social science researchers have for years used members of the general public to gain research insights while educating these people at the same time, for example through science knowledge surveys, ethnographic interviews, and even real-world experiments, for example, experiments in which citizens are prompted to reduce their home energy use just by learning how their energy consumption compare to that of their neighbors. Granted, social science researchers are interested in the attitudes or behaviors of the very people they are engaging in their research. But why can’t the hard sciences also harness the power of people’s curiosity, their online connectivity, and their sheer power of observation as members of large communities?

Dr. Julie Horvath at the NCMNS has been leading a project involving an investigation of how changes in DNA sequence can alter a human’s outward appearance or characteristics, for which she enlists museum visitors in a very unique way. By inviting members of the public to let museum staff swab their armpits and bellybuttons for cell culture, Horvath is studying the bacteria that grow on our bodies and how our behaviors affect these bacterial colonies, as well as teaching people more about their own biology. This project is a very good example of using the museum environment to both collect unique research data and educate public audiences.

But museum visitors can be much more than data points for research projects. Think of the concept of “science for the people” morphing into “science by the people.” A huge proportion of US citizens walk around nearly 24-7 with mini-computers in their hands and pockets, i.e. their smartphones. Max Little, director of Parkinson’s Voice Initiative and Wellcome Trust/MIT fellow currently at the Media Lab, MIT, is working on a project to use smartphones as diagnostic devices for Parkinson’s disease, by using voice-recognition software and the GPS and acceleration sensors embedded in most cell phones to detect disease symptoms. Other citizen science projects can invite citizens collect data on target animal species population counts and range, develop mobile apps to allow citizens to collect data in the field, and even challenge video game users to develop protein-folding algorithms. These are just a few examples, but they really get at the kind of creative citizen science projects that can make the most of current technological developments, public curiosity, science education outreach and engagement activities.

But trying to get scientists, even scientists who conduct their research in museum environments, to see the value of large-scale citizen science projects, is not always as easy as it might seem. I’ve personally seen some researchers, while perhaps willing to have community members bring samples to their labs for analysis, resist pressure from museum and outreach directors to let citizen science guide their research questions. As a scientist, it is I and I alone who should dictate the direction of my research, they might be thinking.

But what about the grants you get, or don’t get? The government funding you receive, in turn dictated by voter decisions on what kind of science is important to pursue? The pressures of your academic institution, or simply the limits of project feasibility given your budget, man hours, student resources, etc.? There are many, many forces that already impact what questions a particular scientist can and does pursue in his or her research. If you are creative enough, I don’t see why citizen efforts – while people are going about their daily lives, playing video games, bird watching, fishing, talking into their phones, interacting in their community networks – can’t contribute to almost any research question you have.

I don’t think citizen science should be the after-thought of museum scientists, or even academic scientists, after they've made sure their own more serious research questions and studies are taken care of. Not only can community members be a huge asset to your research, you could be involving them in ways that are truly two-way and engaging, educational, inspirational, and even perhaps important in terms of future decisions on science policies and funding.

So get out there. People can do more than answer survey questions at interactive museum exhibits or bring you leaf litter from their yards. Heck, they might be able to identify new or endangered species, fold your proteins for you, track yet unknown local consequences of global climate change and capture earthquake activity data, plus more.

Citizen scientists might accomplish more in a year than a single scientist could in his or her lab in a lifetime.