Science is launching humans into space, discovering cures for mysterious diseases, and using the sun to power a cell phone charger. Science is done by someone in a white lab coat, at a research institution miles away, using billions of dollars of government funds and it’s inaccessible unless you’re able to pay for access. Science has its own language and uses words and phrases that themselves require knowledge of the topics being addressed.

But science naturally occurs on a regular basis in an individual’s life. We’ve come to understand some of the scientific processes that occur through a process called the scientific method

The scientific method follows six basic steps: Ask a question, research that question, form a hypothesis, test hypothesis using an experiment, analyze results and draw conclusion, and report the findings. 

Imagine a puzzle… The question that begins the puzzle building process is “What piece goes into an available space next?” At that point, research is undertaken by looking at the available pieces and examining what patterns or shapes might fit into the available space. The next step would be finding a piece that may fit and experimenting with it in the available space. Did the puzzle piece fit? It’s concluded that the hypothesis was correct. Did the puzzle piece not fit? Your hypothesis was incorrect, and you examine other pieces to find out what may fit better. 

Science occurs every second of every day. It is a matter of how a person engages with the science that surrounds them that determines their status as a citizen scientist or a citizen non-scientist. 

Citizen scientist is a term used to describe scientific work done by nonprofessional scientists and refers to the public’s role in scientific advancement. The Green Paper for Citizen Science defines citizen science as “general public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort or surrounding knowledge or with their tools and resources. Participants provide experimental data and facilities for researchers, raise new questions, and co-create a new scientific culture.” Citizen scientists are those that contribute to scientific advancement through things such as asking questions, donating to research work being done, advocating for research, or participating directly in science, to name a few. 

This means participation in science can occur without a scientific degree. It means that any and all people are important observers in the physical world around them and their findings contribute to important advancements. For example, Cornell University’s NestWatch program invites bird watchers to document their bird-watching data and submit it to Cornell’s Department of Ornithology to contribute to their research, including the effects of global warming on bird populations. CNS Foundation encourages our community to become citizen scientists through the Pediatric Brain Mapping Project and help identify the millions of children worldwide with pediatric neurological conditions. 

Scientific inquiry is an important part of being a citizen scientist. This inquiry can involve a personal thirst for information and a closer examination into a scientific topic of interest, to contacting a researcher and asking why their work is important. By encouraging scientists to consider different viewpoints, the citizen scientist is able to participate in intellectual advancement of both themselves and professional researchers. 

Citizen scientists have the power to fund applicable science. The most recent use of the term has come to embody those that financially contribute to scientific work, whether through crowdfunding opportunities, organizations, or donations. Citizen scientists can specifically drive science in ways that they see fit depending on where their spending dollars go. If citizen scientists raise one million dollars to study a specific disease, a researcher examines that disease as opposed to others, thereby shifting the types of advancements that are being made. 

Science is dependent on the work of citizen scientists. Citizen scientists give information from their bodies to researchers, they donate money to labs, and pose new questions to researchers regularly. 

But as science continues to address new questions and tackle new challenges, the understanding of the science becomes more difficult. While it may be easier to explain that a sperm and an egg join to create a baby, explaining a blastocyst becomes every cell in the human body is a little more difficult to explain. How scientists are taking a skin cell, turning it into a heart cell and beginning to answer questions about disease requires a wealth of knowledge on stem cells and biology.

The further inquiry into the processes that inform the human body, asking questions, contacting researchers, and digging deeper all align with what it means to be a citizen scientist. Being a citizen scientist does not mean having all of the answers or being able to walk into a lab and complete an experiment on their own, but it does mean a person is on a quest for answers and puts in the time to learn as much as possible to remain actively engaged with the scientific community.