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Citizen Science is Everywhere, including the White House

At the 2015 White House Science Fair yesterday, President Obama hosted outstanding young scholars from across the country to celebrate their achievements in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), including scholars participating in citizen science projects. This week, the White House made its first foray into citizen scientist by establishing a rain gauge in the First Lady's Kitchen Garden that will share information with a national network for precipitation data.

Millions of volunteers across our Nation actively contribute valuable time and expertise to help advance our understanding of the world around us.  Through citizen science, members of the public can participate in the scientific process, including identifying research questions, making new discoveries, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, developing technologies and applications, and solving complex problems.  Equipped with interactive web tools and readily-available tools like cell phone cameras and water-quality test kits, citizen scientists collect data and act on the results to accomplish fascinating and important work: from determining the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme to support development of new medications, to mapping the 3D structure of neurons in the brain. Through citizen science, the public also has discovered a new class of galaxy (the rare “green pea” galaxies), and helped to map the surface of Mars.

This week, the White House hosted the 5th annual White House Science Fair. One of the student exhibitors demonstrated the impact citizen science can have on both learning and research outcomes. High school senior Tiye Garrett-Mills Tiye investigated more economically viable and efficient ways to create images of the vein systems in leaves. 

Using a desktop scanner, Tiye engineered several different quick, low-cost methods for producing leaf images. Lowering instrumentation costs enables citizen science by making tools for scientific observation and classification more accessible. Tiye echoed this when presenting her project to President Obama:

"One of the reasons why this project is important is because recently in science there has been a big leap to get citizens in science… because there simply aren’t enough scientists to do it so. So, by having citizens collect data, scientists can analyze it and draw their own conclusions. So the thing about this process is everyone has a phone these days, so it’s easy to have access to that and a scanner is basic office supplies. So if I was just able to teach people this technique we could have citizens uploading images of leaf venation systems into their computers and we could pick the best ones and use them online for the registry."

Tiye Garrett Mills presents her project to Astronaut Leland Melvin at the 2015 White House Science Fair. She also demonstrated her project to President Obama during the event. (Photo credit: Jenn Gustetic)

In addition to highlighting great students like Tiye, the 5th White House Science Fair, the gave the Obama Administration and a broader community of companies, non-profits, and others an opportunity to announce new steps to increase the ability of students and members of the public to participate in the scientific process through citizen science.  One of these commitments came from the White House itself, showing that anyone, anywhere can participate in citizen science!

This week, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Park Service (NPS), the White House installed a rain gauge in the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden.  Measurements from this gauge are shared as part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) Network, which includes over 20,000 active participants and serves as the largest source of daily precipitation data in the United States.

These volunteer measurements advance understanding of our Nation’s weather and climate.  CoCoRaHS data are used by a wide variety of organizations, such as NOAA's National Weather Service, the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, private sector and university meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities, insurance adjusters, teachers, and students.  Reports of extreme weather events from CoCoRaHS volunteers even help the National Weather Service decide when to issue extreme weather warnings, helping to protect lives and property. 

The ability to empower a single individual or local community to contribute to a much larger initiative makes citizen science a powerful concept.  The Administration recognized this in its 2013 Second Open Government National Action Plan, in which President Obama called on agencies to harness the ingenuity of the public by accelerating and scaling the use of open innovation methods such as citizen science and crowdsourcing.  In 2013, the Administration also highlighted 12 pioneers in the field of citizen science through its Champions of Change effort. The Administration also continues to amplify citizen science projects that are getting remarkable results and is focusing on the development of a citizen science toolkit to better enable the government to support citizen science projects.

Building off this momentum, OSTP will convene a Citizen Science Forum before the end of 2015 with Federal agencies and external organizations to co-develop a vision for cross-sector scaling of citizen science and crowdsourcing.

Jenn Gustetic is Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Lea Shanley is a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

John McLaughlin is Education Program Manager in the Office of Education at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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