Planets to policy: thoughts on learning from astronomical citizen science

24 February 2021


Reported by Samuel Ward, CSaP Policy Intern, and Katie Cohen, CSaP Researcher.

Anyone can discover a new planet - if they have the right tools. The first installment of CSaP’s seminar series on citizen science revolved around the Zooniverse platform and its Planet Hunters project, an initiative which invited the public to search for new exoplanets lurking in real satellite data. Professor Chris Lintott, Principal Investigator of Zooniverse, introduced Planet Hunters before opening a general discussion on citizen science and how it can achieve success in policy making.

When we look at the night sky, and at the stars, we are seeing a map of other planetary worlds. This is because of a relatively new change in astronomical knowledge, that most star systems actually contain orbiting “exoplanets”. These are the focus of TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), the current state of the art apparatus for detecting the existence of exoplanets. It finds them by measuring the amount of light emitted by stars, which can be temporarily reduced when an orbiting exoplanet passes between them and us. Looking for these dips in luminosity is a task that must be repeated hundreds of thousands of times. This, Professor Lintott explains, is where the public come in: “We ask people to look at graphs for fun.”

But why include people in the first place? In some niches, they actually outperform algorithms and professionals. Citizen scientists can also find novel results, like exocomet trails and the “where’s-the-flux?” object. These discoveries are the product of volunteers carefully searching through hundreds of thousands of signals and debating their own theories over detailed, hand-drawn diagrams posted in online forums. As well as a new planet or their name on a scientific paper, some of these volunteers may also find themselves a new job after being recruited by a professional team. This emergence - of community, discovery, co-publishing and recruitment - all starts with “a few people looking at pictures and clicking buttons.” Ultimately, it is by this process that Planet Hunters has shown how citizen scientists can engage actively with scientific institutions and practices, creating a model for understanding how to facilitate the integration of citizen science into public policy.

Whether citizen scientists engage enough to make this impact is a question of design - of the platform and of the ecosystem of data and tools that surrounds and supports it. When inspiring new users, for example, Professor Lintott stresses that “The first 5 minutes [of user engagement] are crucial.” New users don’t want to spend time jumping through hoops to get set up, so it’s important to create a standardised platform that enables open tools that are quick and easy to deploy and build upon. Likewise, users want to start small: Planet Hunters attracts a wide audience because its tasks can be attempted without significant commitment or investment. In addition to open tools, open data also play a role in fostering a vibrant citizen science community; for example, satellite data is openly distributed to everyone without privileges.

The extension of citizen science to other disciplines may not be as straightforward, an issue raised by the audience in reference to studies that may deal with more complex or sensitive data. This could present a barrier between professional researcher and citizen scientist. For Planet Hunters though, where barriers are typically communicative, they are remedied through designed avenues of discussion, for example user forums or specific research journals dealing with short, two-page articles. With misinformation and bad science raised as concerns by the audience, a more contentious issue was over the necessity to design platforms that avoid advocacy or activism at all, practices that some argued were already embedded in other widely accepted disciplines. Of particular concern to civil servants was the potential for special interest groups to use citizen science platforms as vehicles for inundating the scientific communities and government with cherry-picked studies or other distorted data.

Despite these challenges, the potential for citizen science was noted by many in the audience; some described the Planet Hunters case study as “inspirational” and even “beautiful”. Professor Lintott agrees that “It’s amazing to think we have people who can make scientific discoveries in their web browser.” One audience member was hopeful that citizen science could improve the prospects of those who wish to engage with policy but currently find themselves under-represented. Like the other challenges facing citizen science, fulfilling this may be highly dependent on the platform design, possibly signalling a need for many varieties and implementations of citizen science. However, if platforms are constructed with care and thought, then the public themselves may have the chance to break down the barriers between themselves, policy makers and scientists, improving research and policy for everyone.

Organised exclusively for CSaP Policy Fellows and Continuing Fellows, this three-part seminar series on citizen science runs alongside an edited collection, produced in collabration with the Expertise Under Pressure research project: Future directions for citizen science and public policy. This collection of essays, created by leading policy makers, practitioners, scientists and scholars, will showcase good practice and aim to set out the potential for citizens to contribute more effectively to policy making. The collection will be open access, freely available online and launched at the CSaP annual conference in June 2021.

Katie Cohen

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Samuel Ward

University of York