Citizen Science Musings: From Citizen to Scientist?

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By Sheldon Greaves

Researcher Chris Bowser looks at American eels that were netted on the Black Creek in West Park, N.Y. Photo by Mike Groll, AP

Several new publications are emerging about the phenomenon of citizen science and how best to plan and conduct citizen science projects. As they say in the business world, the market is maturing. Another way to think of it is that citizen science is making the transition from fashion to institution. People are now writing down "the rules" that define "citizen science."

I say this with a tinge of regret; when something truly innovative passes from the halcyon days into more staid respectability, I always feel that something vital and fun goes away as well. But in this case, it also concerns me that the definition of citizen science is hardening without properly addressing how the citizens are to become scientists.

We have the "citizen" part down pat: roles, flow of information, assignments, quality control, hierarchical organization. The citizens serve the project by doing what lots of people can do better than a few people. But I still don't see a clear path by which these citizens become scientists. There are plenty of training programs and workshops mostly designed to teach people how to take measurements and collect data. This is all very important, but it does not teach them how to actually do science.

Data means nothing until you analyze it. Being a scientist means deriving new knowledge about the universe through carefully recorded and systematic observations, good experimental technique, and the use of abstract models, in varying combinations. Perhaps another way to frame the problem is to ask whether someone coming out of a few of these citizen science programs acquires enough scientific know-how that they can come up with their own projects, and carry them out. My guess is that they don't.

Just because we are seeing more formalizing of the process of citizen science does not mean that the rules are set in stone, never to be changed. Rules always go through re-evaluation and revision. But rules and take on the cast of tradition, with the persistent social inertia that accompanies them.  I personally feel that every citizen science project needs to have options available for those who may wish to continue learning more about their subject. For instance, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count is coming up (we'll have something on that later this week). Many years ago I went on one of those trips. It was my first exposure to serious birding and I learned more about birds in that one day than I had my whole life up to that point. After that, there was nothing. A shame, because when Denise and took up birding together many years later, I started to realize how much I'd been missing.

As CSL grows, one of my goals for the organization is that it can provide a place where citizens can learn to become scientists once a local project ends, and where they can connect with other, related projects to sharpen their skills. And one day, perhaps, they will find their own questions, develop their own projects to answer them, and go out in search of those answers. That is what citizen science should look like.



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One Response to Citizen Science Musings: From Citizen to Scientist?

  1. Vic Neshyba says:

    Good article which I read shortly after it was initially posted … today I note a different article which could serve as a step in the right direction. Data, in and of itself, is meaningless. To derive usefulness, it needs to be analyzed and then published. Scientific analysis often requires the use of mathematics. Presented in the second article is an opportunity to acquire or freshen up mathematical skills. It is offered by George Hrabovsky of Madison Area Science and Technology (MAST). He offers to teach a course on Elementary Mathematical Methods for Science. This will consist of units on algebra, estimation and dimensions, geometry, trigonometry, analytic geometry, calculus, linear algebra, multivariable calculus, differential equations, and probability and statistics. Possibly other topics as well. (See his blog … He has four people interested and needs ten … I’m signing on, so he still needs five. The course would be web-based.

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