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Yes, I Would Like to Science Please

You may be familiar with a social media meme featuring a photo of a penguin that comes upon a group of scientists on the tundra and “says”: “Yes, I would like to science please.” The popularity of the meme underscores the enthusiasm the citizen science movement has garnered in the recent past.


Lea takes a break in the White House bowling alley.

Citizen science, or crowd-sourced science, gives people the opportunity to roll up their sleeves, learn some science, and perhaps contribute to scientific knowledge and the improvement of government services. Citizen science can be cost effective, allowing the government to fill critical gaps in data that otherwise may be difficult to achieve due to geographic, time, or staffing constraints. And sometimes people can catch patterns in data that computer algorithms can’t – giving way to new discoveries that otherwise would have been impossible. Galaxy Zoo and Foldit are good examples of this.

Many people are enthusiastic about the prospect of getting nerdy and being a part of something larger than themselves. Geospatial data scientist Lea Shanley, 2008-09 Congressional Fellow sponsored by ASA/CSSA/SSSA in the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, has devoted much of her career to citizen science. Last month she wrapped up a post as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow focused on citizen science initiatives.

Back in 2011, she joined the Wilson Center as founder and director of the Commons Lab to research technologies and methods such as crowdsourcing, social media, and big data analytics to mobilize public participation in science, technology, and policy. Two years later, Shanley founded the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS) to share lessons learned and best practices on designing, implementing, and evaluating crowdsourcing and citizen science projects among federal agencies. The group has grown to more than 200 members representing more than 35 agencies.

Shanley became a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2014. In NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist she worked on the Asteroid Grand Challenge, a large-scale effort designed to identify asteroid threats by collaborating with government agencies, industry, academia, and citizen scientists to track potentially hazardous asteroids. Mapping out the critical observations and gaps, she identified opportunities for and barriers to meaningful scientific contributions by the public. She also developed a competitive grant program, Citizen science Asteroid Data Education and Tools (CADET), which seeks to spur the development of easy to use software tools for non-professionals, such as students and citizen scientists, to analyze asteroid data.

“CADET is one of first NASA grant programs focused on crowd-sourced science, and it has helped foster high-level support for future NASA grants of this kind,” said Shanley.

This year, she and CCS co-chair Jay Benforado worked with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to mobilize 125 of their members to build the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit. Released September 30, it provides best practice case studies and step-by-step guidance for launching and sustaining citizen science projects.

“While the toolkit’s target audience is federal employees, other organizations and individuals will find many of the case studies and resources useful,” stated Shanley.

To accompany the toolkit and provide high-level encouragement to federal agencies to use crowdsourcing approaches, Shanley worked with OSTP to help shape the White House memorandum “Addressing Societal and Scientific Challenges through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing” issued by Assistant to the President for Science and Technology John Holdren.

“It provides guidance for the appropriate and effective use of crowdsourcing approaches, including data quality, scientific integrity, transparency and openness, and meaningful public participation,” Shanley explained.

Shanley also helped organize a White House forum, “Open Innovation and Science: Of the People, By the People, For the People,” to coincide with the launch of the toolkit. The event highlighted the contributions of citizen science for addressing national priority challenges including coastal resilience, pollinators, and public health. Holdren, National Science Foundation Director France Cordova, AAAS CEO and STPF alumnus Rush Holt, and Sen. Chris Coons provided keynote addresses.

Since her year as a Congressional Fellow, Shanley has had opportunities to collaborate with with a number of STPF alumni and current fellows. “The experience I gained and the network I built via STPF was critical to these successes.”