Citizen science marches to victory in national science prizes

Two citizen science projects and one project with exciting potential for citizen scientists were among winners of the 2014 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, announced at an Award Dinner held last night at Sydney Town Hall. Fifteen prizes were given for outstanding contributions to Australian science.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards. The Eureka Prizes have been rewarding science since 1990—celebrating 25 years in 2014.

For more information about all the winners visit

200 divers changing marine science

The Reef Life Survey team has harnessed the efforts of 200 divers around the planet to create a unique global data set that’s generating significant scientific findings.

For their creation of the Reef Life Survey the University of Tasmania’s Graham Edgar and Rick Stuart-Smith have won the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

The team carefully trained and marshalled over 200 volunteer divers, who between them logged thousands of hours of diving in over 2000 different locations around Australia and globally, from polar regions to the tropics.

By ensuring volunteers were skilled surveyors, the Reef Life Survey has elevated citizen science to mainstream marine science. The big data generated had led to papers being requested by the prestigious Nature journal, and to recommendations for the management of marine park areas and ocean fish farming.

“The Reef Life Survey elevates citizen science to the same status as mainstream marine science.” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said.

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Crowd-sourcing Australia’s climate history

First Fleet settlers endured La Niña floods and heavy rains in 1788, but only three years later faced severe drought. And the 1997–2009 Millennium Drought was Australia’s worst since European settlement.

These are just two of the findings of the University of Melbourne SEARCH (South-Eastern Australian Recent Climate History) team, which has won the University of New South Wales Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research for their success in mapping our climate history.

Previously, detailed knowledge of Australian climate history was limited to the start of official records in 1908. The SEARCH team extended that record back more than a century by drawing on the earliest written observations—thousands of pages of gazettes, newspapers and farm records, even First Fleet log books.

As well as teams of historians and librarians, the SEARCH team ‘crowd sourced’ the study of newspaper and gazette articles. More than 100 keen, volunteer citizen archivists scoured thousands of pages of online archives and contributed thousands of articles to the historical record.

“This was a landmark project drawing together scientists, water managers, volunteers and historians to extend our record of natural climate variability in the Australian region,” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said.

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Turning smartphones into science labs for $2

A $2 microscope has the potential to transform citizen scientists’ studies in the field.

For 400 years the traditional microscope has been bulky, expensive, inaccessible to most and near impossible to carry in the field. Tri Phan and Steve Lee have changed that. Their patented technology, creating optically superb lenses cheaply by simply curing a droplet of plastic as it hangs upside down, has won the ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology.

Inspired by the high-quality camera and powerful programming interface of the everyday smartphone, the team invented a lens that could be cheaply constructed and fitted to a smartphone, transforming it into a mobile laboratory.

For around one cent their lens can magnify up to 160x—high enough resolution to view structures smaller than human blood cells. Add a simple 3D-printed lens holder and LED light source, and you have a cheap, portable, digital, web-enabled microscope with access to a powerful programming interface, and potentially, custom apps.

The simple, $2 device can achieve higher magnification and better image quality than $1000 devices in clinical use, and has been benchmarked against a $20,000 device.

“By making microscopy inexpensive and accessible to the public the droplet lens will inspire a new generation of amateur scientists and adventurers to explore and discover the hidden microscopic world,” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said. “Who knows what this could lead to next.”

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