Oxford-based project to look at 'citizen science' through the ages

A project based at Oxford University that will investigate public participation in science in the 19th and 21st centuries has been awarded a grant of almost £2 million.

'Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries' is to receive £1,950,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The project will bring together historical and literary research in the 19th century with contemporary scientific practice, looking at the ways in which patterns of popular communication and engagement in 19th-century science can offer models for current practice.

It will be led by Professor Sally Shuttleworth, of Oxford University's English Faculty and St Anne's College, together with Dr Chris Lintott of the Department of Physics at Oxford and Dr Gowan Dawson from the University of Leicester University.

Three major scientific institutions will be involved as partners – the Royal Society, the Natural History Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons – and there will be numerous co-organised symposia, public lectures and exhibitions.

Professor Shuttleworth said: 'I am excited by the possibilities opened up by the project to work across disciplines, and to bring in-depth historical research to bear on the development of current forms of citizen science.'

When Charles Darwin was developing his theories of evolution in the 19th century he read avidly in popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2,000 correspondents.

Such engagement with a wide public in the construction of science became increasingly difficult owing to the development of professional and highly specialised science, but the emergence of 'citizen science' projects has suggested a new way forward.

Contemporary examples include the Zooniverse platform, directed by Dr Lintott, which started in 2007 with Galaxy Zoo and now has more than 800,000 participants who contribute to projects from astrophysics to climate science. Significant discoveries have already been made by these volunteers in the field of astronomy.

However, the structures by which these volunteers might engage with professional science, and through which scientists themselves might draw upon their findings, are not clear, and researchers on the project have been turning to 19th-century models of communication to find ways of harnessing this huge popular interest in order to increase the rate of scientific progress.

Dr Lintott said: 'With the creation of vast data sets in contemporary science, there is a need for a new army of volunteers to help classify and analyse the information.

'The research is timely since the digital revolution and open-access publishing are about to change forever the processes and forms of scientific communication and exchange.'

The successful projects chosen by the AHRC to receive funding demonstrate collaboration across disciplines within the humanities and in the sciences.

Professor Barry Smith, leadership fellow for the AHRC's theme of science in culture, said: 'The large grants in the science in culture theme clearly demonstrate just how much scope exists for significant, and reciprocal, interaction between research in the humanities and in the sciences. The wide range of disciplines and techniques on show in these projects give a clear indication of just how much interdisciplinary collaboration is already taking place.'