By Sheldon Greaves
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 Societyâ€™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 â€œon the edgeâ€ 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 isnâ€™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.