The Scientific Approach

PHOTO by Russian Travel Geek / Facebook
How tourists help to develop Russian science

Travelling with scientists as part of a tour group is common practice in the West, but it’s in its early days of development in Russia. Such tours are offered by the project Russian Travel Geek, which is organising trips to the Kola Peninsula next year.

Researchers plan on trekking through the Yuksporrlak pass in the central Khibiny Mountains, followed by a trip through the woods and marshes surrounding Lake Umbozero, the deepest lake on the peninsula, and monitoring bird colonies on the rocky cliffs along the Barents Sea. discusses the phenomenon of citizen science and ways to help out scientists that expand one’s horizons and are also lots of fun.

What Is Citizen Science?

The scientific community has long been a private club and common folk simply could not join it. Today is a different story though thanks to so-called citizen science, the practice of utilising motivated volunteers and amateur scholars who are not technically scientists and lack the necessary technical education. Even though volunteer efforts in science have been a widespread practice for a while, the term “citizen science” was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014.

So why now? There are several reasons: many are seeking a feeling of involvement in actual scientific work and there’s a lot of interest. Popular science attracts millions of people and for good reason, since science is interesting! Another reason is socialising because there are different groups and communities and cliques, and hanging out with researchers and scientists, professional or amateur, can actually be quite fun. Citizen science communities have people from various backgrounds and professions, leading to a wide variety of topics discussed among the members and their horizons continually expanding.

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There is a mutually beneficial relationship between hardcore scientists and their institutions, which receive extra human and material resources, and amateurs that lack a technical education but are able to participate in serious projects. Citizen science now encompasses amateur astronomers, travellers who venture out on research expeditions and even regular computer users who install special software to share the computing capacity of their PCs for scientific purposes.

Popular Science Expeditions in Russia

In order to unravel the mysteries of the universe, scientists often have to leave the comfort of their labs and travel all over the globe for specimens and samples.

Financing such expeditions is a constant headache for the scientific community. One way to cut costs is through collective expeditions. A few years ago, “popular science tourism,” or educational tourism, became a reality in Russia.

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The project Russian Travel Geek, or RTG, has scientists and their fans organising, managing and planning trips. Tourists pay a fee that covers the costs of travel and research. Scientists are thus provided access to the subject of their research while travellers receive a unique experience, including guided tours to exciting locations and a closer look at the scientific process.

Over the last year, RTG has sent six expeditions to Kamchatka. The total number of applications exceeded 500. It may seem like a small number, but it’s quite considerable given the nature of the trips.

There are still available slots for this year. Unlike a regular visit to a travel agent, those willing to participate in research expeditions need to not only pay for the trip but also beat out the competition. Applicants have to submit two forms, both of which include a lot of questions about hobbies and pastimes, even requiring links to social network profiles. Physical fitness is also a requirement, although it’s not a priority.

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“Everything is made in a way so that the free spots on the expeditions are taken by the most pleasant and driven people. That’s why participants continue to communicate, joke and hang out with each other even after the expeditions run their course,” said Artyom Akshintsev, head of RTG.

Akshintsev is a hydrobiologist and it was his interest in water-based extremophiles, or algae living in hot springs and geysers, that gave birth to RTG. He became the first guide on research tours to Kamchatka.

“When I brush my teeth with water that came from a spring that takes water from a glacier and travels through a Siberian pine forest past magnificent flowers and plants, I feel like an elf,” said Anna Zaryakina, an actress who took part in RTG. “Cramped in a truck like fish in a barrel, riding cross-country with branches smacking our heads, and there we are, singing songs we know almost by heart with hoarse voices.”

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Moscow PR manager Svetlana Fedotova, who took part in an expedition to Kamchatka, admitted that the most memorable event for her was meeting indigenous peoples and staying in a reindeer herders’ yurt.

During trips aboard the Shtandart, a replica of the 18th-century Russian frigate, tourists learn how to operate sail ships and listen to lectures given by practicing maritime and sea-faring historians. During the winter holidays, there were roundtable discussions at an astrophysics lab in Crimea.

New scientists are regularly joining the team. One of the latest additions is a petrologist and volcanologist, a fellow at the Experimental Mineralogy Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who will soon lead an expedition to Tanzania’s volcanoes. A postgrad student from the Miklouho-Maclay Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences is organising an ethnographic expedition to Abkhazia.

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“Turns out that tourists are sick of spending their vacations lounging on beaches,” Akshintsev said. “A lot of people support RTG and the scientific community believed in the chance for such a successful symbiosis.”

He said that each trip is organised while bearing in mind that it should not transform into a purely scientific expedition. For example, one of the groups this summer will participate in the filming of a popular nature TV show.

Joining Citizen Science: Where to Begin

The global citizen scientist community now has millions of people. Some look for exoplanets and black holes, some seek vaccine optimisation and others monitor bird migration and venture out on expeditions across the world.

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Apart from RTG, there are several other ways to participate in citizen science.

Zooniverse is a platform for volunteers looking for scientific opportunities. It not only allows users to participate in projects but to also launch their own studies and attract scientific assistance.

Scistarter is a website with hundreds of projects that allow users to select their preferred type of activity and the amount of time they can dedicate to science. For example, some may be ready for a long-term expedition while others can only work from home once a week – the platform caters to all.

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Scientific American, despite its name, is not just for US scholars. The website also has offers from research organisations in New Zealand and Australia. Each project page indicates right away whether participants need to travel or not. Projects have a wide range of focuses, from deciphering manuscripts to mapping updated coastal lines.

National Geographic also has a special web section for citizen science projects, from monitoring frog populations to counting wildflowers.

The Planetary Society website also has a list of projects dedicated to space research.