5 easy ways to become a freelance scientist

Citizen scientists are driving progress in massive projects like scouring the ocean floor, monitoring local weather and wildlife or exploring the depths of the cosmos

Active participation in scientific research is not an unobtainable dream anymore

Scientists are looking to average citizens for help in everything from counting galaxies to monitoring weather conditions. (Hubble Heritage Team AURA/STScI/NASA/Associated Press)

Have you ever wanted to be a scientist, but didn’t think you had what it takes? Well, put your doubts aside, because science needs you.

Whether it’s counting galaxies or birds at the backyard feeder, scientists are looking to average citizens for help in documenting the natural world or finding breakthroughs in their mountains of data.

Projects vary widely, from monitoring local weather to using your computer to scour the sea floor or explore the cosmos.

World This Weekend

People are increasingly turning to the internet to raise money for everything from cool tech products to movie production. Now, some scientists and academics are using it to help fund their science research. Hear Colleen Ross's report on The World This Weekend on the science of crowdfunding on Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. ET (7 p.m. AT, 7:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Radio One or on Sirius on at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET.

Citizen science is “really a new word for an old thing,” says Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford and the principal investigator for the Zooniverse citizen science projects. It’s “the involvement of people who aren’t professional, paid scientists in the scientific process.”

You don’t have to quit your day job to be a citizen scientist -- even donating two minutes of your spare time at lunch or in the evening can contribute to scientific data collection in a meaningful way.

In the last few years, “scientists have gotten very good at collecting information about the world. New technologies, new cameras, new connectivity — [it all means] we get a lot of information,” says Lintott.

“Without the involvement of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, most of the information locked away in images or in video won’t be accessible in a useful form to scientists,” says Lintott.

Participating in citizen science projects “has an interesting effect on people [when they] realize that they’re doing science,” says Lintott. “[It] changes how people think about science.”

It’s no longer an unattainable dream, he says.

Depending on how much time and energy you want to invest, “there’s a variety of projects to choose from,” says Chandra Clarke, a citizen science blogger in London, Ont., and author of Be the Change: Saving the World with Citizen Science.

These projects show people that all you need to get started, to make a real impact, is to tap into your own curiosity and give it a try. The projects are designed in such a way that “even if you get it completely wrong, they have [safeguards] built in to fix it,” says Clarke.

Finding the right project requires a bit of clever internet searching, but it all starts with a decision about the commitment you’re willing to make and the kind of science you’re interested in.

Here are 5 ways average people get involved in scientific projects.

Donate money instead of time

Like Kickstarter, there’s “crowd-funding for specific scientific studies,” says Clarke. Many companies or institutions use a website called Let's Experiment (formerly Microryza), where they can set funding goals for research projects, which only become a reality once the specific target has been reached.

Getting involved

There are many websites that list projects, many of which are international efforts like:

For example, a researcher from the U.K. is asking for funding to research whether microbes are melting the Greenland Ice Sheet. Another researcher from New Orleans wants to find out if ‘safe’ levels of BPA in plastics are really safe.

Using this approach, “you know [that] your money is going directly to that particular scientist for that particular study,”  says Clarke.

Set it and forget it

The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, a group developed by a team at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, has an app called BOINC that puts your phone or computer to work studying diseases, predicting global warming or scanning the cosmos any time the device is idle and on Wi-Fi.

One project within the BOINC network is the long-running Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), in which you can donate computer processing power to help radio telescopes listen for signs of intelligent life in outer space.

Clarke says that this kind of crowdsourcing can be invaluable for cash-strapped researchers.

“Big computing time costs money. You have to purchase that kind of thing from a university and a lot of these projects, of course, are operating on very tight budgets,” says Clarke.

Surf through photos on the web

A leader in the web-surfing brand of citizen science, Zooniverse offers huge databases of still photos that can only be properly mapped by armies of citizen scientists. They have projects that let you search for a new black hole, explore the surface of Mars, watch camera-trap images from the Serengeti or sift through documents from ancient Greece.

If still photos don’t capture your attention, NEPTUNE Canada has thousands of hours of deep-sea video footage for you to go through. Watch the video in 15-second clips and record all the animals you see with Digital Fishers, through Ocean Networks Canada.

Phylo involves shifting rows of blocks, which represent DNA sequences for two different organisms. with the goal being to slide them until they match as closely as possible with as few gaps as possible. ((Phylo))
If you still can’t tear yourself away from games like Candy Crush, there’s an online game called Phylo. Hosted by scientists at McGill University in Montreal, it’s a series of logic puzzles where all you do is match colour patterns.

But you’re doing more than playing a game you’re helping map how animals are related to each other. Those matching colours are actually pieces of DNA that contribute to genetic diseases, and you’re helping make connections that even high-powered computers often miss.

Join in from home

By downloading a smartphone app, users can report their local weather conditions using WeatherMob or check for noise pollution using Noise Tube. Both apps rely on collective environmental reporting to get detailed maps of what it’s like where people live.

One can also find out how many stars are blocked by light pollution with the Dark Sky Meter app for Apple, or the Loss of the Night app for Android, which provide detailed light pollution measurements for scientists that wouldn’t be available any other way.

For a bit more of a challenge, there are home kits that can bring discovery to the kitchen table. Sift through actual sediment samples in search of fossilized shark teeth from the Atlantic coastal plain, or send in a cheek swab for National Geographic to contribute to an understanding of the origins of modern humans with the NatGeo Geneographic project.

Outdoor science

Observer-based community projects present opportunities to monitor backyard spaces or volunteer with other citizen scientists.

Tiernan, Rhodri and Egan Clarke get into the action as a family as they sort through soil samples and record what they found for the recently finished mastodon citizen science project. (Submitted by Chandra Clarke)
“You can get your kids involved … and they’re doing real science instead of building a volcano that is going to explode all over your kitchen table,” says Clarke.

In backyards in North America, CoCoRaHS, the community collaborative rain, hail and snow network, needs people to monitor the amount of precipitation in their area to improve future local weather forecasting.

Backyard bumblebee counts like The Great Sunflower Project are also a popular option for the budding naturalist, particularly since North American bee populations seem to be constantly under threat.

Volunteer community nature projects are often run for a week or two at a time, and they are constantly changing. But perennial favourites are bird counts, monitoring the spread of invasive plants or river and lake sampling projects.

What drives all citizen science projects is the fact that there’s an incredible amount of data to be gathered and sorted.

“We don’t know what to do with the fact that we’re all carrying around mobile sensors [in our cell phones] which could record a plant, or a bird or a weather phenomenon,” says Lintott.

“The way that citizen science is developing is as a response to this,” says Lintott, “the only way [that scientists] are going to turn all that data into knowledge is by getting as many people as possible to help us.”