Citizen Science Musings: Finding Problems That Matter

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By Sheldon Greaves

Image: http://www.americaslibrary.gov

2011 is nearing its end, which like the end of any year is a good excuse to look back and the year gone by and the year to come. I'm pleased with the progress CSL has made, particularly in the last six months when it became possible for me to spend more time on it. In recent months we've seen several new  bloggers come on board with posts and projects that have been a delight to bring to you, our readers.

In the year to come, I hope to see CSL become less and less the product of one or two people assisted by a few others. In order to realize its full potential, CSL will need to grow into a larger organization that supports both individuals and small (or not so small) groups and projects. I would like to explore the possibility of local chapters, and many other things that will need the energy and intelligence and passion of more and more people. My recent experience assures me that this is a plausible future for CSL. I look forward to working with you all to make that happen.

On another front, this week could be called "The Week of the Monarchs" thanks to Bob Pish's updates and photos of what might be called an almost accidental science experiment. It started with noticing some caterpillars and led to an extended learning experience for him, his family, and our readers. But here's something that got me thinking. Forrest mentioned in a comment to one of the posts that there is something here that monarch experts need to be aware of, and this might be a point at which CSL as an organization might play an important role.

Beginning scientists are urged to work on problems that matter, but which problems are those? If you're just getting into a field of science, or happen to stumble onto something like Monarch larvae in your yard in December but you're not already an expert, how do you know it's significant? And once you find out that it really is something to write home about, what then?  How do you find and engage the expertise needed to assess what you've found. What are your next steps? This is an aspect of amateur science that I feel has been badly neglected in the newly fashionable movement of Citizen Science.

The idea of CSL as a sort of scientific answer to "Antiques Roadshow" where people bring projects or observations for and evaluation of their "worth" seems attractive on the surface, but at the same time I would not want to give anyone the idea that their work is "unimportant" just because it isn't ground-breaking. Even re-doing experiments and projects that have been done in countless high school science classes have important educational value.

it's an interesting problem. I welcome an extended dialogue on this and many other ways in which our organization can grow and serve scientists of all kinds and abilities as we find our way forward.

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5 Responses to Citizen Science Musings: Finding Problems That Matter

  1. Bob has contacted Monarch Watch about his December monarch finding. Hopefully they will know more. Museums, universities and scientists often receive inquiries from the public about what are believed to be unusual discoveries. Some really are. But based on my experience receiving hundreds of reports from readers of my science articles and books, most such reports are not unusual. Bob’s is certainly one of the most unusual I’ve ever received. While CSL could become a clearinghouse for such reports, we need to also encourage people with an interest in science to move beyond tinkering and reading/watching science in books, TV and online to actually selecting some goals and pursuing them. New Years Day is a perfect time to do that, especially for goals involving environmental and observational science. Those without a budget or the skills to build or obtain instrumentation can push ahead with only a computer and a free spreadsheet program from Open Office, for the Web is loaded with data in many fields just waiting to be analyzed by serious amateur scientists.

    • marquelle says:

      Obtaining or getting access to instruments seems to be the major problem. You can do significant research on environmental issues, except it takes and instrument like a GC/MS.

      However, there is also no doubt that these instruments are unaffordable (typical GC/MS is about $50k, plus sevice contract, plus helium carrier gas, plus software service contract, plus columns and supplies, etc).

      Amateur scientists need to understand the principals of these analytical techniques, because they are what the professional labs use. The best way is to actually use the instruments. Which, because of cost and access, is unlikely. Are there any ideas on how to solve the dilema?

      • Jim Hannon says:

        A couple of possibilities come to mind.
        Going with the hacker space idea, if enough people were interested in using gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy it looks like you could come up with a joint ownership of a instrument built with pieces off Ebay.

        The open source / DIY movement has come up with a lot of amazing stuff recently. Now a CG/MS may be a stretch but….

  2. It may seem surprising that I object to “projects that matter.” I think the only important project is the one that you are interested in enough to actually do. If that happens to be something of “significance” great, if it is studying the chemical composition of the odor of sour milk, or counting the number of bumps on a leaf, that is cool, too. The principal trait—if you allow that one exists—for any scientist is curiousity. You ask, “How does that work?” Then you get enpassioned and begin to think and test ideas. You go down blind alleys and, perhaps, get a glimpse of the machinery underying the mundane. Those are, in my opinion, the only problems that matter.

  3. Jim Hannon says:

    I am not sure an amateur can expect to find a suitable project “that matters” but it is worth a try. Professional scientists hopefully know enough about their field to know where the knowledge ends. But they are also driven to find a project that they can expect to get funded. What would be really cool would be to get some professionals to come up with a wish list of amateur suitable projects that they would work on but could not expect to get funded.

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