After he moved to London in his early 20s, Luke Howard
became obsessed with the weather. Howard had a day job running a
pharmacy business in the 1790s and early 1800s, but he spent a lot of
his spare time staring at the sky. He collected a set of makeshift
weather instruments—glass thermometers; a hygrometer (to measure
moisture in the air) cobbled together from a wire spring and a strip of
whalebone; and a barometer attached to an old astronomical clock that he
bought secondhand and repaired himself. He and his business partner,
William Allen, started a science club of a dozen or so members, all men,
who met in each other’s houses to give talks about a range of subjects
like chemistry, astronomy, and mineralogy. When he was 30, Howard
presented to the group three names he had come up with for different
types of clouds—cirrus (from the Latin for “curl of hair”), cumulus
(referring to a pile), and stratus (a “horizontal sheet”). The talk was a
hit, and he published a version of the lecture a year later in a
science magazine. And the names stuck: Howard’s cloud categories are
still used by professional meteorologists.
This was science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—a buzzing
world of nerds and amateurs trying to document the workings of the world
in their spare time. It was less an institution than a labor of love,
like sculpture or poetry. London was a kind of hub, full of scientific
societies and clubs—they were like the maker faires, the do-it-yourself
collectives, the hack-a-thons of the Enlightenment. In the United
States, there was a flurry of interest in collecting plant and animal
specimens and documenting the natural history of North America. The
barriers of the time kept certain people out of science. (There were few
scientists of color, although women managed to push their way into
influential scientific circles in Europe and America, and Black
inventors made important technological contributions in the United
States.) Still, the technology for making scientific observations was
cheap, much was unknown, and nearly anyone with the means available
could make a major contribution.
Then, somewhere between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, science
took a turn. As it became more powerful, sophisticated, complicated,
and better funded, it disappeared behind the walls of ivory towers and
corporate labs. Since the 1970s, support for science has become a
partisan issue in the United States, as conservatives’ faith in science
keeps declining. Fifty-eight percent of Europeans say they can’t trust
scientists because they are too influenced by corporate money. Science
culture is now elitist, say its detractors.
Have we forgotten what science is actually for?
During the U.S. election campaign, some politicians and talking heads
spoke as if science were not a means of gathering knowledge but some
kind of cabal. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump met with leaders
of a discredited anti-vaccination group and infamously called global
warming a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S.
manufacturing non-competitive.” Matt Drudge, editor of the far-right
Drudge Report, on Twitter accused the National Hurricane Center of
exaggerating Hurricane Matthew’s intensity, even as it killed more than
1,000 people in Haiti. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas used the House
Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to hurl unfounded
accusations at the researchers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, accusing them of altering data.
If federal politicians wage war on scientific institutions, can the
public take ownership of science again? There are signs that the
internet and global technology are reviving the role of citizens in
documenting how the world around us is changing. Not to undermine the
knowledge of experts. Not to engage in some elitist project or define
some new kind of geekdom. But to build collective insight—millions of
little observations about the now-warming climate, the now-shrinking
numbers of species of animals and plants, the chemistry of air and
oceans and minerals—that might just help us survive and adapt to the
Though many of the tools we associate with modern science emerged
during the Enlightenment, science itself is arguably as old as human
existence. Take, for example, the fields of meteorology and climatology.
Indigenous people have kept oral histories spanning thousands of years
of past climates. Written a few thousand years ago in India, the
Upanishads discussed the process of cloud formation. In 1500 B.C., the
Chinese engraved weather data on bones. Aristotle wrote a book called
Meteorology in 350 B.C. that described the hydrologic cycle.
Public concern about the environment spurred the passage of America’s most important environmental laws.
But meteorology and climatology emerged as serious scientific
professions more than a century after Howard named the clouds,
especially after these fields received government funding during World
War II. In the United States, the National Weather Service has relied on
citizen observers to track weather since the mid-19th century. But once
the study of the weather became institutionalized, meteorologists,
climatologists, and atmospheric scientists developed their own
subcultures, their own publications and meetings, and a kind of separate
language, defined by jargon and technical concepts.
In the mid-20th century, scientists like Rachel Carson and Aldo
Leopold popularized the findings of the emerging field of ecology.
Public concern about the environment spurred the passage of America’s
most important environmental laws and the establishment of the
Environmental Protection Agency, which functions as both a watchdog and a
scientific agency monitoring the water and the air for chemicals that
harm public health and ecosystems. The National Park Service turned to
ecosystem science to redefine its work as the nation’s lead conservation
NASA took on the role of atmospheric monitoring, and meteorological
research surged forward. Satellites floated overhead to capture images
of land and cloud and ocean; supercomputers spun three-dimensional
models of weather moving across the entire globe.
The spread of misinformation has bewildered some members of the public.
Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, some climate scientists began to
suspect that fossil fuel burning could alter the Earth’s climate in
frightening and irrevocable ways. By the late 1980s, when Dr. James
Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of climate change,
the evidence was undeniable—at least to the scientists. But fossil fuel
industry leaders, afraid of regulations clamping down on their
activities and unwilling to chance any dent in their profits, set up
their own alleged experts to sow confusion. Over nearly three decades,
industry front groups like the Marshall Institute, the Heartland
Institute, and the Institute for Energy Research have paid miscellaneous
ideologues and hacks to pose as experts and use media coverage to
discredit the work of reputable scientists. Recent investigations reveal
that oil companies like Exxon gathered decades worth of evidence
confirming that climate change was real, even as they publicly cast
doubt. Understandably, the spread of misinformation has bewildered some
members of the public: Most people haven’t had access to the inner
workings of climate science and couldn’t easily say whom to trust, who
was the expert, or what they should do.
Meanwhile, the global temperature has ticked inexorably
upward—churning out more severe storms, more intense wildfires, and
putting global agriculture and water supplies ever more at risk.
Controversy has delayed or obstructed public discussions about how to
change the ways we generate energy, grow food, build cities and roads,
avert crisis, and adapt to change.
Now nearly every looming crisis our society faces is at least partly a scientific one.
With the public conversation over scientific issues polluted by a
haze of misinformation, many people in the United States have never
known how to respond to science. Similar manufactured controversies have
shrouded other dilemmas where the science was clear but people with an
agenda broadcast doubt. Is smoking really bad for you? (Yes.) Aren’t
vaccines a bit dangerous? (No.) Is the pesticide DDT linked to cancer?
Now nearly every looming crisis our society faces is at least partly a
scientific one. The colossal emergency of climate change, the problem
of feeding the couple billion additional people who might populate this
planet in the next couple of decades, the collapse of ocean ecosystems,
the rise of the next epidemic disease. Problems as large as this will
require ingenuity, labor, and support beyond just the professional
scientific community. They’ll require scientists to step out of the
laboratory more often and the rest of us to get involved.
“You can be scientists,” Katie Spellman, a post-doctoral
researcher from the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks,
Alaska, told a troop of kindergarteners and first- and second-graders in
the Native Gwich’in village of Venetie. “You don’t need me.”
Venetie sits just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near
the Brooks Range. On an afternoon in early November, the children
gathered around a cluster of wild roses a short walk from their school.
Under the guidance of Spellman and their teacher, Terri Mynatt, they
attached metal tags to the bushes and named five of them—kid names like
“Princess Batman” and “Junior Heart.” Then they wrote down the number of
rose hips still clinging to the ends of the branches, the first notes
in what would become an ongoing data log for each plant.
In the past few years, spring has arrived unusually early here,
winter too late. Wild roses, whose hips make jam and jelly for humans
(naturally fortified with vitamin C) and winter forage for animals,
might bloom sooner or later or more often. As the seasons went
off-kilter, would wild foods such as rose hips and berries become harder
to find? Both the children and scientists wanted to find an answer.
Then Spellman pulled out a smartphone, and together they gazed up at
the clouds. How much of the sky was covered with clouds, and what shape
were they? The kids took turns snapping a series of photographs of the
overcast sky with an app called GLOBE Observer. The phone automatically
stamped geolocation and time and date information on the photograph. A
class of schoolchildren in remote Alaska had just joined a global
research project—the data they recorded would help NASA scientists
better interpret their satellite images and climate models. In
Fairbanks, Spellman and her colleagues would use the class’s data on
roses as part of a larger project to study what warmer weather might
mean for Alaskan ecosystems. In Venetie, the information would allow the
villagers to keep track of their own food supply.
YES! Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare.
NASA’s GLOBE program, a citizen science project, has existed for
more than 20 years, but it has taken off since the agency launched the
app in August. About 15,000 people have used it to snap more than 55,000
photos of cloud and sky. Clouds are especially difficult to model, and
satellites can spot only their tops but not their underbellies. For
that, NASA needs people on the ground, around the world, snapping
pictures and making notes.
It’s part of a kind of citizen science renaissance, driven partly by
affordable computer technology: The smartphone puts cameras and a GPS
into the palms of millions of people, and the internet makes
crowdsourcing simple. This lets scientists draft huge numbers of
volunteers to assist in documenting how the world is transforming.
“What can be really exciting about citizen science is the ability to
get many, many people working together on the same problem,” says Scott
Loarie, a co-director of a project called iNaturalist, which launched in
2008 and is now run by the California Academy of Sciences. “We’re able
to tackle science problems that are too big for any individual person.”
About 93 percent of all monarch butterfly data and three-fourths of U.S.
dragonfly sightings during this decade have come from iNaturalist,
which lets people around the world use smartphones to chronicle their
sightings of plants and animals. Every day, they gather about 5,000 new
photos of flowers and trees, amphibians and colorful insects, and other
organisms. An iNaturalist volunteer in Colombia discovered a previously
unknown species of dart frog, simply snapping a photo and uploading it
to the web.
The explosion of citizen science comes just as scientific institutions face losses that could endanger us all.
Crowdsourced projects like these are proliferating throughout the
scientific world like mushrooms. This past fall, researchers at the
University of Arizona launched an app called Kidenga to crowdsource
observations about mosquito populations and outbreaks of the
mosquito-borne diseases Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. Old Weather—a
partnership among U.S. and British science agencies, the National
Archives, and university researchers—has enlisted 30,000 volunteers to
study the scanned pages of 19th- and early 20th-century ships’ logs for
weather observations made during Arctic whaling voyages: These help
sharpen the calculations of Arctic and global climate models. An
organization called iSeeChange, founded by both scientists and
journalists, created an app in collaboration with NASA that lets people
document phenomena like the timing of first snowfall, early springs, the
migration of birds, and the browning of trees in drought. This summer,
working with a group called AdaptNY and the radio station WNYC,
iSeeChange handed out 30 temperature sensors in New York City’s Harlem
and northern Manhattan neighborhoods to monitor the hyper-local effects
of heat waves on public health.
The explosion of citizen science comes just as scientific
institutions face losses that could endanger us all. The federal
government supports about one-third of all research and development, and
even the biggest philanthropists in the country wouldn’t be able to
fill the gap if much of that money were gone. A senior Trump adviser has
talked about cutting funding for NASA programs that document the
Earth’s climate because they are, in his words, “politically correct”
(as if ice and clouds had a political affiliation). President Trump also
has criticized the National Institutes of Health, and scientists fear
that some programs there and at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention could be on the chopping block.
“Now science is returning the power back to the public.”
To photograph clouds, to mark down temperatures, to study how berries
ripen, and to support financially and politically the scientists who
help us understand how to read the signs of a changing Earth—these now
become acts of saving democracy and human knowledge and trying to hang
on to a livable planet. Knowing about biodiversity loss, disease
outbreaks, or changes in weather, ice, clouds, and seasons shapes our
society’s life-and-death decisions—about water and agriculture or about
protecting communities from natural disasters or epidemics.To interfere
politically in science that simply watches the Earth from satellites or
studies the spread and treatment of diseases is “really disheartening
and dangerous as hell,” says Jonathan Foley, the executive director of
the California Academy. “I think it’s important for other organizations
to step up and start doing science and being a voice for it. I think
that’s where citizen science enthusiasts are crucial.”
“It’s an interesting circle that we’ve come to,” says Spellman.
“We’ve worked so hard to professionalize science, but then scientists
became the elite and isolated. Now [science] is returning the power back
to the public.” Never has that power been so important.
Ready to find your inner scientist?
Lots of resources are available to help you get involved with a
citizen science project close to home or across the country. Here are a
SciStarter lets you search for projects by location and interest: scistarter.com
Public Lab provides information and tools to participate: publiclab.org
The National Wildlife Federation offers family-friendly ideas: nwf.org/Wildlife/Wildlife-Conservation/Citizen-Science.aspx