When most people think of scientists, a certain image of a scruffy bespectacled person in a white lab coat commonly springs to mind. Whilst this stereotype exists for a reason, a new revolutionary paradigm for the way science is conducted may prove to be the antidote to this outdated trope. This idea is citizen science. Citizen science manifests itself in a multitude of different ways, but the overall premise is using the enormous and largely untapped potential of non-technically trained members of the public to conduct scientific research. A particularly fitting topic of discussion for a Pint of Science evening. For those not familiar with the Pint of Science organisation, it is a worldwide network that aims to unite ground breaking scientists with interested members of the public over the near universal shared love of pints. To this end, the subject matter is always designed to be of interest to the a non-scientific member of the public and pitched at a level that provides substance without making people feel like they are back in school.
The evening began with a short introduction from the dry-witted host Jessica Finan. After a quick show of hands the audience was refreshingly found to be dominated by non-scientists. With the pints in full flow Ms Finan gave way to the first speaker of the night, Dr Eugenia Rodrigues. Dr Rodrigues, a social scientist from the University of Edinburgh, set the tone for the evening by providing an overview of exactly what citizen science is, its advantages and some examples. These varied from local projects such as the ‘track a tree’ initiative in Edinburgh, to nationwide schemes such as the ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’, in which an excess of 5 million people monitored the birds they observed in their gardens. The advantages for these kinds of projects are obvious, 5 million bird watchers can generate a lot more data than a small team of PhD students! This large resource does not come without its potential issues however. Untrained researchers are more likely to make mistakes attributed with not being familiar with proper scientific method, though this can be combated by large numbers of repeat measurements to statistically average out anomalies. There is also the question of inherent bias in citizen scientists to further their own particular agenda. For example a member of the public who is concerned about pollution in their local stream is more likely to report signs of pollution in their stream rather than evidence to the contrary, potentially providing an inaccurate description of the situation. Dr Rodrigues wrapped up her talk by getting the audience to visit a web based citizen science project named penguin watch on their phones. This scheme encourages people to count and identify penguins from images and served to show the audience just how easy citizen science really is.
After the conclusion of Dr Rodrigues’ talk, a short interval filled with a Q.I. styled quiz on the animal world gave the audience ample time to refill their glasses and discuss what they had just learnt. Unfortunately the zoological theme of the quiz proved a step too far for an inebriated physicist to make any meaningful contribution past an amusing team name, though I suspect I was not alone in this regard. The second talk of the evening came from Anna Schilling, a PhD student from the university of Edinburgh. She began by telling of various famous scientists who entered the profession as outsiders, recounting the stories of household names such as Mendel and Faraday. This was then followed by an enthusiastic overview of her personal experience of volunteering in various projects across the globe, giving a human touch to the benefits of participation in these kinds of ventures. Once the audience was sufficiently convinced as to value of undertaking this kind of work, they were pointed in the direction of local projects in and around Edinburgh that would serve to satisfy their new found scientific itches.
To conclude the evening the audience was treated to the final talk from Holyrood park ranger William George. He self-confessed to being used to giving this talk to audiences of children, and warned the audience to expect more audience participation than the previous presentations. Ranger George waxed lyrical about Holyrood park and told the audience of his duties as a ranger. It came as a surprise to everyone just the amount of work that goes into keeping the park in its condition (much of which comes down to removing troublesome gorse). The example of Holyrood park proved to be a good way of captivating the audience, with only one person in the room confessing never to have been. Echoing Dr Schilling, he spoke of the improvements to his life after quitting his office job (from which he had a view of the park!) and becoming a ranger. I imagine he will have a few more volunteers joining him in his endeavours in the park come this weekend.
This article was written by James Hitchen and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.