Citizen Science Musings: The Right to Do Unfettered Science

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By Sheldon Greaves

The lore of the amateur scientist includes the motif of the lone, unassuming experimenter, quietly working away in a garage or basement laboratory, when there is a knock at the door. Or, perhaps not even that; the door bursts inwards at some ungodly hour and suddenly the hapless hobbyist is staring groggily into bright lights and the muzzle of at least one firearm. Then things get worse.

There is this story from the UK Daily Mail, which is old news, but is quite illustrative of the depths to which something like this can go:

Special Branch officers arrested Nicholas Witham and his home was sealed for two days while Army bomb disposal experts and forensic teams searched the property.

But Mr Witham, 38, who suffers from anxiety and depression, insists he is innocent and has accused the police of massively over-reacting.

The father-of-two from Wroxham, Norfolk, said he was carrying out routine scientific experiments and complained that his reputation locally has been wrecked by the incident.

Mr Witham, who is currently on police bail, said he only had standard chemicals in his shed for preparing slides and specimens for his microscopes.

'I still can't get over what happened,' he said.

I remember quite well how, as an inquisitive youngster, I could literally walk to the corner drugstore and buy sulpher and saltpeter to mix with pulverized charcoal briquettes to play at making gunpowder. The druggist had to know what I was up to, but that’s how it was then. My bombardier buddies and I managed not to do too much damage. We even kept all of our digits and eyes. Nobody ever called the cops, or the fire department (Okay, there was that one time… but that was when the kid next door set the adjacent vacant lot on fire by playing with matches.).

The point is, even before 9/11 anything that looked like a home lab evoked the specter of a secret meth lab, and that’s still true today. Add to that fears of home anthrax creation, bomb-making, manufacturing ricin and other deadly toxins, and recent reports of how to augment certain flu viruses into something truly nasty and it adds up to a very confusing picture for those tasked with matters of local and national security. When an innocent amateur scientist gets their lab and reputation trashed by mistake, it is politically difficult or impossible for the authorities to admit any wrongdoing, as it would only highlight the fact that they had no idea what they were doing.

On top of the law enforcement layer, there is the whole counter-terrorism apparatus that uses blunt, blanket solutions to try to solve more subtle problems. In the case of Mr. Witham, the company where he bought his chemicals reported his purchase to local police, as required by law. Today buying many chemicals is almost impossible for amateurs, even though their “terrorism” use is vanishingly small compared with their use to the home hobbyist because of laws like these.

And herein lies the problem: the web of trust that the government can keep us secure starts to fray when the tools used to sniff out terrorists sweep up far more good guys than bad guys, or when civil liberties are discarded in the name of security. This has serious, negative implications for security; among counter-terrorism experts it is well understood that oppressive large-scale tactics can actually make it easier for terrorists to operate because no one wants to inform the authorities lest they get implicated themselves by over-zealous investigators.

The question then becomes, how do we build (or rebuild) the trust between the home scientist and those who “protect and serve”? One way might be to arrange to inform local police that you are working on something and offer transparency. This has its own drawbacks related to rights of privacy and search. Another might be to use science clubs or hacker spaces as liaisons between the police and local experimenters. These local communities could take a page from the ham radio fraternity, which does an excellent job of self-policing their use of public airwaves. Still another method is to offer to talk to police departments to help them distinguish between meth labs (which they can already recognize) and someone’s science project.

Finally, there is certainly room for citizen scientists to petition their lawmakers for more responsible laws that make allowances for the small-scale home or neighborhood scientists whose work, I am convinced, will only become more important in the years ahead.

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One Response to Citizen Science Musings: The Right to Do Unfettered Science

  1. Todd Carney says:

    I remember, too, buying chemicals and other chemistry stuff as a kid. “Top Notch” variety store had a whole permanent display of Perfect (the brand) chems, labware, glass tubing, and the like. I can almost visualize the little bottles of sulfur and potassium nitrate, and see myself counting up my allowance change for whatever ten-year old terrorist project I had in mind.

    That was in the late sixties–no Walmarts or even K-Marts around to suck the life out of neighborhood “dime” and variety stores. These and drug stores used to almost always carry at least some photo chemicals and developing tanks, etc., for hobby photographers. Oh, they always had radio and t.v. tube testers, also.

    I don’t remember being fearful then, nor do I remember the adults being so. I never gave a thought to “The Bomb,” and I was too young to care about Vietnam. In fact, sad to relate, it wasn’t until high school that I realized Black protesters didn’t come from Vietnam. Things blur and smear together when you’re a kid.

    I’m not really all that sentimental about the Sixties. I prefer to look to the Future while enjoying the Present, but I just don’t remember any itchy-and-twitchy fear that seems so characteristic of the present era.

    Todd Carney

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