What ways can a person contribute to significant science without being a full-time professional scientist?
April 1, 2012 11:06 AM   Subscribe

What ways can a person contribute to significant science without being a full-time professional scientist?

I'm interested in hearing any possibilities that could fit a broad interpretation of the question, and compiling a list that could be useful to a wide range of people.

To stimulate your thinking...

"Person" could mean an interested layperson with a few hours to spare at one end of the spectrum, or at the other end it could mean a former research scientist who now works in some other profession, and could put in significant effort given the right opportunity.

"Science" can be taken as broadly as you want, including physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences.

"Contribution" could mean anything from spending an hour on Galaxy Zoo on up. It could even mean taking up a career that contributes directly to some field of science, but using existing skills that came from some other field. (E.g. I got the sense from some other Mefi questions that it might be possible to work in computational biology based on programming and data analysis skills without having deep training in biology.)

If it's something that would have a person feel they helped advance science in some way, and it doesn't require going back to college for several years to do it, it probably counts.

Please also explain what skills and resources people would need, where that's not obvious.
posted by philipy to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Kind of two ends of the spectrum, but there is Foldit which is quasi-gaming and requires no scientific knowledge, and then there is Innocentive where you can tackle full-on scientific/engineering projects and probably need a fair bit of background.
posted by Durin's Bane at 11:28 AM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Look into Citizen Science projects. They cover just about every branch of science. I know a few people at Citizen Scientists League and many of them have been doing it for decades. Everything from bird migration and weather patterns to biology and astronomy. The only real thing that keeps citizen scientists from contributing to field is access to affordable equipment, but even that is becoming less of an issue with things like OpenPCR, DIY scanning electron microscopes and other clever tricks.
posted by Ookseer at 11:46 AM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Amateur astronomers contribute an amazing amount. Most new comets are spotted by amateurs, for instance, and there have been supernovas which were spotted first by amateurs. And just recently an amateur astronometer spotted an intriguing cloud on Mars that no pro had noticed.

Professional astronomers consider the amateurs to be a huge asset, and work actively to get them involved.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:48 AM on April 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Be a research subject.
posted by thirteenkiller at 12:14 PM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

There are multiple research projects using people's home computers for distributed computing, like SETI@home and Folding@home. Here's a list of projects on Wikipedia.

NASA has Be A Martian, which looks similar to Galaxy Zoo.
posted by sigmagalator at 12:27 PM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: Read the book A Short History of Nearly Everything. You'll be shocked to discover the huge amount of "niche" science that relies on a handful of individuals essentially just keeping the faith.

For example, it probably wouldn't occur to most people that something as mundane as lichen still needs to be researched, collected and and categorized, and, not being the sexiest of sciences, there are exceedingly few people actually doing it.

Here's another example: Crows carry West Nile Virus. OK, have you ever thought that it's scientifically useful to capture, band and track crows? Well, they're doing it in Seattle. Really just a handful of people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:42 PM on April 1, 2012

In the biology direction, there's often volunteer opportunities tracking or observing various plant and animal species that are time consuming enough that there's not enough money or interest for paid researchers.

For example, the Olympic National Park recruits volunteers to go on backpacking trips through the park with GPS coordinates to help update the population count of the Olympic marmot. In California, you can help biologists figure out the migratory habits of the long-billed curlews.

It's not quite as glamorous as discovering a comet, but still very important.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 12:56 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Eyewire/Wired Differently is a project in which the public can help map the neurons in the back of the eye. Fresh Air interview with Sebastian Seung, a professor at MIT, about this project and his related book is available at NPR.
posted by apparently at 12:58 PM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: If you can code, you can make real contributions to open-source mathematical software like Sage.
posted by escabeche at 1:09 PM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: In my own field, archaeology, amateur or avocational archaeologists make contributions all the time in the United States, and probably elsewhere. They can discover and report archaeological sites, volunteer to help on field or lab projects, or devote themselves to studying a topic and sometimes know more about it than any professional. There is so much work compared to the number of archaeologists that such possibilities are inevitable. Also, archaeology is a very integrative field and so people with professional training in another field can often bring it to the study or the practice of archaeology.

The major American archaeological society (Society for American Archaeology) even gives out an annual award to outstanding contributions by an avocational archaeologist. If anyone reading this wants to get involved, in the United States every state has a Society or Association that is a joint collaboration between professional and avocational archaeologists and it is a good way to get started.
posted by Tallguy at 2:20 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I understand that amateur dog breeders can contribute a lot to research on genetics and genetic diseases related to dogs -- Donna Haraway describes some really great examples in When Species Meet.
posted by spunweb at 2:24 PM on April 1, 2012

I'm in an area with ticks, and given that these are very common and can kill you by spreading disease (though not it's common to kill you), I tried to find out more about them. I was shocked to find out how little is known about them and how little they've been studied. Apparently mosquitoes are sexier or something.
So that doesn't give you a method, but it gives you a potential subject that needs more study For The Good Of Humanity!
posted by -harlequin- at 2:37 PM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: A little bit of intro: I used to work in a lab and back in the day, I would always figure out my buffers on paper (well, Excel), targeting the center of my desired pH range, and then go in the lab and throw them together with precisely measured amounts of chemical and then use the pH meter as a spot check. (Oh look, within 0.05 of my target - yay me!) The classic method is to use the meter to titrate and spending half of forever doing drop-wise addition of acid or base, only to overshoot by a little and have to start over because you're doing something where ionic strength really really matters. The biologists I worked with (I'm a chemist by training) either looked at me like I was insane or I'd been out in the parking lot licking that 1x4x9 monolith again.

Right now I'm unemployed and, in addition to working on my house, I'm currently playing around with the notion of simulating enzyme immunoassay development on a computer using things like the Langmuir equation, the Einstein-Stokes equation and Michaelis-Menten kinetics so that a scientist could do one experiment with widely variable conditions, throw that data at the computer and get back a much more precise idea of what conditions ought to be used to get an optimized assay rather than the current industry standard which is to screw around with your conditions for two weeks to a month until you get something that kind of works.

"Ooooo, SCIENCE!" right? It seems a lot more impressive if I don't tell you that everything I know about the mathematics behind enzyme immunoassay pretty much come from Wikipedia or the like. Anyone with web access and some college level algebra could be doing this.

The only part of this that comes from my career at The Very Big Pharmaceutical Company of America was the time I spent watching people approach their work with a series of wild guesses and beating their heads into the wall and thinking, "you're kidding, right?"

And this work is just the preface to figuring something out that I may very well be the only person on Earth who cares about.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:37 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Plant breeding - Luther Burbank was the son of a farmer and had little formal education, but he left a great legacy. Russet Burbank is still predominant potato in the food industry.
I don't know if this is considered science, but you can also go into seed saving and collect and preserve local varieties of plants, trees and vegetables.
posted by leigh1 at 5:30 PM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: You can get your genes sequenced by and/or donate your genetic data to Harvard's Personal Genome Project. It's "opensource" in that the data becomes publicly available (without your name attached). Genetic scientists can freely use the data for any number of research projects, forever.

From what I understand, they're interested in people who want a lifetime relationship with the program, where you keep giving data about your health throughout your life, and they'll return results from any testing your data is used in.

I'm not affiliated and haven't done this myself, just came across it while doing research for work. But it seems like a cool way to contribute to science without being a scientist.
posted by nadise at 5:37 PM on April 1, 2012

Amateur birdwatchers frequently take part in loacal counts and censuses (of the birds) which are very valuable for understanding what's going on with the larger populations.
posted by jquinby at 5:42 PM on April 1, 2012

Volunteer to be interviewed for public health surveys.

I'm quite serious about this: public health people are always looking for participants. Sometimes they may be looking for people with specific conditions (e.g. arthritis, diabetes), but other times they are looking for anyone or for healthy control subjects. They advertise in local newspapers, at hospitals, and also on the internet (like Craigslist). Some medical studies involve taking drugs, etc -- but public health style surveys generally mean just answering questions about your health and habits.

If you live in Ontario, you can join the Ontario Health Study.

Surveys - not just for narcisists anymore!

/disclaimer: I am not currently recruiting, but I am involved in a study which has done community-based recruiting in the past - and we really could have used more respondants
posted by jb at 9:04 PM on April 1, 2012

Best answer: Here's something a little different, that I - as a scientist - have been thinking about a lot lately:

If you have a basic knowledge of science and the ability to enthusiastically and clearly communicate that knowledge, I would recommend volunteering to teach kids at the grade school and high school levels. I personally get opportunities like this dropped into my inbox all the time through my department, but I'm sure you could seek them out (one upcoming activity I am doing is called "DNA day").

The benefit to science is two-fold. First, it really really annoys scientists how much of the general population chooses to believe in quasi-/non-scientific facts as opposed to the real facts (e.g., global warming). The only way to combat this is to commit to educating people, and early.

The other reason is that a lot of people in this country don't think it's worth spending the money on things like increasing the NIH budget to fund scientists. To get around this, we need to ensure every generation is as amazed and supportive of science as possible. I do think that the more young people we can really convince of this fact, the better off we'll be in terms of funding. And science is AMAZING and exciting. It shouldn't be hard to convince kids of this fact.
posted by corn_bread at 9:09 AM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Be a lab tech. My fiance is a lab tech in an oral biology lab. She works 20 hrs/week. Two weeks ago she ran a Western that she thought would be the worst Western she'd ever run. Turns out, it proved the existence of a protein; her boss believed the protein existed, based on other data, but didn't have definitive proof. The Western gave that proof.

You can get a job as a lab tech in most academic labs with just an undergraduate degree.
posted by jdfan at 6:11 PM on April 2, 2012

Best answer: Volunteer at you local Natural Science museum, there are usually plenty of opportunities to get your hands dirty there.
posted by hubs at 3:18 PM on April 4, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.

I wanted a diverse set of suggestions, so I can't really pick "best" answers, but I will mark a few to highlight the range of possibilities, esp things that might be surprising or lesser known.
posted by philipy at 8:22 PM on April 13, 2012

Best answer: The Planetary Society website also has a whole list of Citizen Science projects.
posted by sigmagalator at 10:36 PM on April 27, 2012

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