Citizen Science Musings: What Happened to the Society for Amateur Scientists

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By Sheldon Greaves

Cover from an issue of "The Amateur Scientists' Bulletin", Summer of 1999.

Many of our readers know about, or were members of the Society for Amateur Scientists, one of the first general organizations serving what is now popularly known as Citizen Science. Founded in 1994 by physicist Dr. Shawn Carlson, the organization developed an enthusiastic following and several notable initiatives. I first joined SAS in the summer of 1996 and soon became deeply involved as an Assistant Editor for the newsletter, which was a quarterly print publication at that time. Starting in 2001 I found myself working in the SAS main office in Coventry, Rhode Island doing project management, and developing and editing the Society’s weekly electronic newsletter, what became known as The Citizen Scientist. I continued this until 2003, when Forrest Mims took over and very ably ran things until June of 2010. In addition, SAS held several national conferences and sponsored the annual Benjamin Franklin Citizen Science Award along with other programs.

Many of you know that in the last few years SAS has declined and then rather suddenly ceased all operations. The website formerly located at www.sas.org was recently moved, and the original site files ported to a new domain at www.soamsci.org. The original SAS domain was sold to a new owner. Since then Forrest and I have fielded emails from people searching for articles from The Citizen Scientist, unaware of what has happened. Others of you have inquired about the state of SAS and its waning, so I thought I would fill you in based on what I know.

Like many (most?) nonprofit organizations, SAS always had to think about money and fund-raising. Quite a number of times SAS was “on the edge” but somehow always found new donors and/or fresh donations to stay afloat. For the last few years, Shawn was working to create a new science organization for kids called LabRats, investing a great deal of time, effort, and money into that venture. Some donors were concerned about this new shift in priorities, since this was not specifically what they wanted done with their donations. A couple of donors ceased or scaled back their donations.

When the financial crises of 2007 and 2008 hit, it created an economic environment very hostile to organizations that depend on the largesse of wealthy donors. By this time SAS was collecting almost no membership dues and relied almost exclusively on a few large donors and some grant money. Added to this was a series of management decisions that did not turn out as hoped, stretching the organizations resources past the breaking point. Finally, it came out that SAS had failed to file several critical forms with the IRS, which compounded some already costly errors.

In June of 2010, SAS announced that they were ceasing publication of TCS as well as stopping most other functions. A Facebook page still exists, as well as the new web domain. But all other operations have apparently ceased. As of this writing the former SAS web site files have been uploaded to the new domain, but the site has not been updated to account for its new location and many internal links are broken.

The Citizen Scientists League was created out of remains from the collapse of SAS. In November of 2010, one of the former SAS donors called me and asked if I would be interested in helping to create a new organization dedicated to the same general ideals as SAS had been. I was unemployed at the time and this sounded like a good use of my unexpected leisure. This donor also contacted Forrest and together we drew up plans to continue a modified version of the SAS mission.

It was hard watching the disintegration of an organization that I had put a lot of effort and passion into, but sometimes circumstances change and what used to work no longer does. If one isn’t in a position to rebuild, then someone else must. Newton famously remarked that he had seen further than others only by standing on the shoulders of giants who had come before him. In founding SAS, Shawn Carlson proposed a bold vision of what science could do in the hands of ordinary people. It was a vision that captured and still grips my imagination. In creating and working to build CSL, I feel a responsibility to learn from both the successes and the failures I saw and participated in during my time with SAS in the hope of creating a enriching, dynamic, self-sustaining community of the scientifically curious.

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7 Responses to Citizen Science Musings: What Happened to the Society for Amateur Scientists

  1. Jim Hannon says:

    That is about what I had figured happened. The one big disappointment was not having a SAS convention in Chicago.

  2. Sheldon’s account of what’s become of SAS is both accurate and diplomatic. The demise of SAS demonstrates the importance of transparent management and active participation by both members and the board of directors.

  3. * Thanks for frankly sharing your story and comments about how the SAS lead to the CSL experience. I’d like to make a positive response to your “vision” and mission statements. However, if my contribution here makes you uncomfortable, if it seems too awkward/aberrant/off-the-wall for the CSL’s current posture, I’ll quite understand if you delete it.

    * I feel a special sensitivity to –what at least has been our American identification with science and progress. I think it verges on having the political/influential capital of being a major religion –and a corresponding constructive potential which (as with religion, in my opinion) has been largely compromised and squandered.

    While seriously following this line of thought might be hazardous to your funding, I suggest there’s a lot of potential to be tapped in a popular renewal of faith in the methods and motives of real science and engineering.

    By “real” I’m talking about the independence and integrity which was once popularly attributed to _our_ genius inventors, engineers, and scientists. I realize how badly misplaced that trust has often been. What I’m advocating for is an understanding of how important, how socially cohesive that trust was, and how important it is to socially isolate and quarantine those who would betray the public’s trust (ie: Monsanto’s asbestos, Dupont’s leaded gasoline, the insane nuclear power industry, our EPA’s “the air is safe to breath” after 9/11, and our head-long rush into nano-technologies –which has drowned out even Scientific American’s editorial warnings

    > http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=big-need-for-a-little-testing )

    * This would require great courage at times, but I think the traditions of science are so strong and resonant in our society that making such a movement happen mainly requires “humming a few bars” –before most everyone else picks up the chorus lines.

    * Contrary to the pronouncements of those interests who make a living through adversarial relationships and politics, *real* science is not hostile to faith and religion. It too draws strength from faith: the faith that there is accessible truth, from optimism, from motives of service, and from a benighted dedication to the stewardship of people and our environment –which can best be described as spirituality.

    * Such a movement would have much to overcome (now a days), but the emphasis should be on enlistment –not battles, and certainly not a cultural “war”.

    On the college campus this renewal could find its expression in a new breed of supportive fraternities and sororities which could inform coming generations. In high schools: science clubs. Founding members need to know who they are and the decent social values they stand for. For the general public, it needs the sort of socially positive presence and influence (as a priority) that CSL might openly and proudly aspire to.

    > “In founding SAS, Shawn Carlson proposed a bold vision of what science could do in the hands of ordinary people. It was a vision that captured and still grips my imagination.“

    Yes: hands, hearts, and minds.

    ** Although the sponsorship/protectorship of Technocracy, Inc. is suspect (particularly given the lack of prosecution by such as the HUAC and the FBI), one of the old timers was a guest in my house and I take nearly everyone involved at their earnest face value.

    > http://www.technocracy.org/

    Back in a technologically simpler era, TI seriously proposed giving everyone they touched a basic technical education –sufficient to become an informed and franchised citizen of our materially engineered existence.

    > http://www.technocracy.org/transition/energy-distribution-card/233-technocracy-definition-and-laws

    “Progress” is out-stripping such goals, but that doesn’t make a basic material and operational understanding of society’s support system any less worthy a goal.

    * I want to place before you a basic question. Endless “technotronic” progress, I think you have to agree, leads to a future of specialized special interests, an inherently non-democratic, divided, increasingly headless, but never-the-less managerial society. Is our game of progress worth such a candle? Should we debate the willy-nilly, profits/corporate driven technical “progress” of our society? Can we admit to ourselves that it results in ever greater numbers of us being reduced to uninformed chumps (speciality educated as we each might be)?

    * Less than a century ago, William Lear (of “Lear Jet” and multiple patents fame) left school after the 8th grade. He succeeded at being a Navy electronics instructor, a radio engineer, building a radio station and designing successful electronic products –all _before_ learning Ohm’s law.

    Those days are gone.

    * I’ve been a life-long graphics and an (ISCET/state licensed) electronics technician. I strongly identify as a technician. I’m predisposed to trusting others who do science, discovery, design, invention, engineering, and who solve technical problems.

    What I’m speaking of here is applying the same sober analysis to where we’re all going –that we’ve employed to gainfully work with technology. This necessarily includes such soft parameters as happiness and spirituality. If we conclude that we’re becoming ineffectual passengers on a run-away train, a good starting point would be to at least say as much –out loud.

    Is the Citizen Scientist League able to entertain such thoughts?

    • Sheldon says:

      Craig,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate comment. I’ll answer your last question (“Is the Citizen Scientists League able to entertain such thoughts?”) first: Yes. In fact, I welcome such a discussion.

      You raise a number of important questions about the role of the scientist as a citizen of civilization, and the responsibility of the intellectual generally vis a vis that civilization. Is there a place for the citizen scientists akin to the “public intellectuals” of the last century who served to bring the big conversations to the public with an eye toward inciting genuine participation in where we as a society were going?

      I hope I have adequately summarized some of your thoughts, and I would like to see a broader and deeper discussion of the issues you raised. Alas, I must stop there, as I still have to write my Monday column. But thank you for sharing your thoughts; please continue to do so, and I invite our other readers to join in this discussion.

  4. Darlene says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I’m glad you and Forrest have found a way to raise the phoenix from ashes.
    In response to Craig’s thoughtful comment, ECAST (http://www.ecastnetwork.org) is starting to help move the science/policy block in that direction by designing a series of participatory pilot test across the U.S. this year. Findings will be presented to Congress in the fall.

  5. Brian Chapel says:

    Thanks for the background, Sheldon.

    I have often wondered what happened. I was very enthusiastic and optimistic when I came away from the UPenn, Caltech, and Las Vegas conferences. SAS may have faded away but the need still remains. I hope CSL can take the original core ideas to their next level and that Labrats has success with its own worthwhile objectives.

  6. Jack Herron says:

    Please excuse the brevity of this post. I have a tremor which makes typing painfully challenging. I just discovered your website and the sad news about SAS.
    I do hope that you and yours are healthy and doing well. My wife and I are on the decidedly slippery downhill path towards a hole-in-one. As one does at such a time, I have been reflecting on the good and bad parts of my life.
    I have been blessed with a challenging and rewarding life and am grateful for that. It is said that old people don’t regret what they have done, only the things they DIDN’T do. I find this to be very true. Still I find myself troubled by the abrupt and rude method of my resignation, and wish to tender sincere apologies to Shawn and yourself, and a further explanation I would be glad to give if you could send me a telephone number for yourself. Both my wife and I found you and your wife delightful, and I would enjoy “catching up”.
    If you have a phone number or email address for Shawn I would very much appreciate the chance to apologize and thank him profusely for the richly rewarding opportunity’s he gave me.
    Due to the typing problem, I am in arrears in excess of 50,000 unanswered emails. I would ask that you give me a brief phone call giving me your number so that I can call you back on my “dime”.

    Jack Herron
    9326 s. Avenida Mochuelo
    Vail, AZ 85641
    520 269-7279

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