'Twitchers' they can't do without

March 3, 2000

Enthusiastic amateurs are vital for science, say the experts. Now a pro-am dating agency is on the cards.

Steve Farrar reports

They are among the unsung heroes of science but the hour of the amateur scientist may be at hand. Well-informed enthusiasts have long helped academics working in a wide variety of fields to pursue their goals - many scholars admit that it would be impossible to carry out their research without data gathered by amateurs.

However, this involvement is beginning to gain a new level of recognition as a series of initiatives in the United States seeks to contact and coordinate greater numbers of amateurs.

Science has a lot to gain as powerful information technology enables the professionals to usefully analyse the vast quantities of data generated by enthusiasts.

Experts at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington were told that now, more than ever, amateur scientists were needed - the task was to find ways to find the right volunteers for the task in hand.

Richard Tresch Fienberg, publisher of Sky and Telescope magazine, said the American Astronomical Society had set up a working group specifically to explore how "pro-am" collaborations in scientific research could be expanded.

One possibility being explored is the setting- up of an online astronomers' registry, a kind of dating agency to bring the two parties together on specific projects.

Astronomy has long enjoyed a good working relationship between the academic astronomer, paid to explore the heavens and publish research, and the enthusiast, who makes his or her own observations out of the sheer love of the science.

"You can't do amateur high-energy nuclear physics because you can't build your own particle accelerator in your backyard, but anyone can look at the sky," said Dr Fienberg.

The results have been impressive. Amateurs frequently discover new supernovae, comets and asteroids. They also play a huge role in the study of variable stars and planetary weather.

In every instance, the data is rapidly passed on to the professional for analysis. Recent steps forward in the quality and sophistication of commercially available, computer-controlled telescopes have produced an upsurge in the quality of amateur data.

Meanwhile, academics, for the first time, have the kind of data-processing power to enable them to take advantage of this large body of work. "The amateur provides the professional with a way of getting data that they may not otherwise have a chance of gathering," said Dr Fienberg.

Another area where enthusiasts have proved vital is in the study of ancient plants and animals. Adrian Hunt, a palaeontologist at Mesa Technical College, New Mexico, has long relied on the assistance of volunteers. "I could not survive without them," he said.

With small budgets and a very low-tech approach to discovering new specimens - basically, walk around and look down - the enthusiast is central to labour-intensive field expeditions as well as helping to clean up specimens afterwards.

There are many enthusiast groups already in existence across the US, admittedly most with a pronounced bias for studying dinosaurs, who bring the two parties together.

Dr Hunt's own team is a mixed bunch with great expertise and remarkable knowledge of the subject, with a retired air force officer, a professional astronomer and two sculptors among their ranks.

The scale of the effort to cross the divide between academe and the outside in ornithology is particularly impressive.

According to Rick Bonney, director of education and citizen science at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, ornithology relies on volunteers even more than palaeontology does.

His team uses the internet to coordinate the efforts of tens of thousands of bird watchers across North America, "the world's largest organised research team" no less.

Their work has included a pioneering study of disease epidemiology among a wild animal population, namely conjunctivitis in house finches, as well as research into the migratory habits of redpolls and, currently, the geographical spread of differently patterned pigeons.

Each project is designed to draw the maximum benefit from the input of the enthusiast and often leads to publications in the scientific literature.

Dr Bonney is also keen to ensure the process provides benefits to both parties, with the enthusiast gaining a good knowledge of the subject and an understanding of the scientific method as their side of the deal.

"By actively participating in these projects in an organised way and receiving educational material, people learn a great deal about the process of science," he said.

The laboratory sends its participants information packs and background information on the aims of the study in question and displays constantly updated data analysis online for them to follow. Dr Bonney's team believes this is essential.

It is a point that the experts agree on - the volunteers are not just extra pairs of hands or eyes, divorced from any thought on the matter. Many start off with a great understanding of the subject and can offer genuine insights in their field. Certainly, most learn a great deal from the experience.

Dr Fienberg believes there are many disciplines - from entomology to nutrition, seismology to anthropology - where amateurs are already making contributions but could do a lot more.

"These are clearly not isolated people doing crackpot things. They have a deep love and often impressive understanding of their field. The only area where I can't find any role is in chemistry - all the amateur chemists have either been locked up or have blown themselves to bits," said Dr Fienberg.

Chemistry aside, then, it is a partnership where everyone wins.

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