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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


White House Forum on Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing:
Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People
Washington, D.C.

Advancing the Progress of Science:
Scientists and the Public Together

September 30, 2015

Good morning. It is exciting to be part of this celebration of Open Science and Innovation, and specifically, the launch of a Crowdsourcing Toolkit.

This visionary concept will not only enhance science itself but can also have the profound effect of broadening participation, virally.

The participation of public enthusiasts in science and engineering research has a rich history in the United States, and it has contributed to building our storehouse of knowledge, making unique scientific discoveries and informing solutions to real-world problems.

We owe a lot to our volunteers. And I owe a personal debt to a group of backyard "amateur" astronomers who collectively form the American Association of Variable Star Observers. While a Ph.D. student, I enlisted this group in following the brightenings and dimmings of a class of close binary systems, while a high-energy satellite scanned them for X-ray emission. My thesis result was on its way to becoming a collection of upper limits on X-ray emission from this class of objects until ... late one night an amateur astronomer from Prescott, Arizona, called me at home to let me know of a visible outburst from one of these binary stars. I immediately convinced my thesis advisor to convince the Goddard Space Flight Center to stop panning the entire sky and point the space observatory towards that one star. The result was outstanding: the first detection of not only X-rays, but rapid X-ray pulsations. And I finally had a thesis result that confirmed that the accreting star in these binaries had to be a collapsed degenerate star in its death throes.

Today, much later, NSF has been investing in public participation in virtually all fields of science and engineering. We can demonstrate that this engagement--often called "open science"-- furthers our mission, which is "to promote the progress of science."

NSF funds open science that is based at universities, museums, and other research organizations. Volunteers are contributing to data collection over large time scales and wide geographical areas, making important--sometimes essential--additions to scientific databases. They may assist in digitizing a large base of analog information, or use their own pattern recognition skills to make a new discovery.

We find that people from all walks of life are participating in diverse areas of scientific research. This is because of increasing access to new media, new technologies and new large standardized databases, and it is stirred by their own genuine interest to pursue compelling science challenges.

In 2002, NSF invested in eBird, a major internet-based Open Science project initiated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The major significance of eBird is that it was one of the first such projects to leverage cyberinfrastructure. Volunteers nationwide uploaded millions of observations to the database. The eBird data catalog continues to grow, with 9.5 million records in May 2015 alone.

The data submitted by volunteers, in combination with advances in machine learning and online tools, have contributed to our increased understanding of bird populations and their distributions, and have informed decisions about species and land management on a continental scale.

eBird tracks the quality of submitted data and has recently documented that the highest quality observers submit 80 percent of the data. In March 2014, Science magazine reported that eBird had been used in more than 90 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters that addressed ornithology, ecology, climate change, and statistical modeling, a reflection of the cross-disciplinary partnerships developing in much research.

Another example of cross-disciplinary research informed by the public is a platform called Zooniverse, which developed from an earlier project that gave volunteers the opportunity to classify images of galaxies taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Zooniverse today hosts projects ranging from identifying bat calls to transcribing pre-computer-era museum records, in addition to continuing work on astronomical images.

NSF has made 18 awards to Zooniverse for projects that have supported scientific discovery from spatial variability of larval fishes to measurement of the rate at which stars larger than our sun lose mass.

Science magazine reported in March 2014 that Zooniverse projects had "yielded more than 50 peer-reviewed articles on topics ranging from galaxies to oceans." The common factor in these projects is a large set of data whose results benefit from both human and machine pattern recognition.

NSF was also an early funder of research to understand how and what volunteers learn through participating in open science. NSF now funds projects from Washington state to Puerto Rico to Minnesota that seek to provide opportunities for volunteers to deepen their scientific expertise, analyze data, and take greater leadership roles in scientific research.

Data have contributed to natural resource management, and volunteers have developed observing skills and learned how evidence is used in research and decision-making.

And communities are using the data. An example is the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, COASST, a project based at the University of Washington that organizes coastal residents in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California to monitor sea-cast bird carcasses.

A further example: An award NSF has made in the past month aims to increase our understanding of the brain's information-processing ability by tracing neuron interconnectivity. The project is based at the University of Washington and seeks to approach the problem of mapping neuron pathways by engaging the public through an online game.

There are other ways to engage the public. NSF-funded Decision Making Under Uncertainty collaborative groups are aimed at increasing participants' understanding of decision-making processes, developing tools to support decision makers, and facilitating interaction among researchers and decision makers.

An example is the project based at Arizona State University, the Decision Center for a Desert City, which addresses the challenge of policies for the use of water drawn from the Colorado River.

Public participation in research is increasing, and as the added value of public participation is more widely recognized, I would like to announce that the National Science Foundation is committed to a new agency priority goal on public participation in STEM research. The goal is to

    Build the capacity of the Nation to solve research challenges and improve learning by investing strategically in crowdsourcing and other forms of public participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

NSF will continue to fund science and engineering researchers who can expand their reach by actively engaging the public. We at the National Science Foundation look forward to continued and growing contributions of the public to solving some of the most pressing--and interesting--challenges we face.

Thank you.