Have a sci­en­tific pas­sion? Be­come a ci­ti­zen sci­en­tist.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Deb­o­rah Blum is the author of five books, most re­cently “The Poi­soner’s Hand­book,” and the di­rec­tor of the Knight Science Jour­nal­ism Pro­gram at MIT.

As the daugh­ter of an en­to­mol­o­gist, I came to ci­ti­zen science early. By the time I was in ele­men­tary school, I could iden­tify the tiny black ants (Ar­gen­tine) march­ing in de­ter­mined lines down the side­walk. By the time I was in high school, I was “vol­un­teer­ing” to help study the mat­ing chem­istry of bees. “Don’t worry,” my fa­ther shouted as I stood in a buzzing cloud of male drones, clutch­ing a bal­loon bear­ing an ar­ray of come-hither pheromones. “They don’t sting.”

I shut my eyes any­way, but he was right. They didn’t. Male drone bees are de­signed for re­pro­duc­tion rather than hive de­fense. And I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly wor­ried — stand­ing in a buzz of bees was just part of my nor­mal life. Or so I some­times re­sent­fully thought. It was only later that I re­al­ized how much the ev­ery­day science of my child­hood had shaped the way I would see and value the in­tri­cate and un­ex­pect­edly beau­ti­ful weave of life around me.

That kind of il­lu­mi­na­tion is cited in many of the ar­gu­ments of­fered to­day by those pro­mot­ing ci­ti­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion in sci­en­tific re­search. The move­ment’s lead­ers are look­ing be­yond the ed­u­ca­tion of the in­di­vid­ual; they also em­pha­size the way di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion makes science more ac­ces­si­ble to Amer­i­cans who, many worry, are be­com­ing alien­ated from the re­search process.

Fur­ther, there are ar­eas of re­search that re­quire a near-army of data-gath­er­ers. Track­ing shifts in bird mi­gra­tion, say, in re­sponse to cli­mate change can­not be done with­out ded­i­cated vol­un­teers.

All of these is­sues have helped fos­ter an in­creas­ingly well-man­aged ar­ray of ci­ti­zen science projects far be­yond the fa­ther-re­cruits-daugh­ter ap­proach of my child­hood. Con­sider, for in­stance, the rise of web­sites such as ISeeChange.org, an on­line “jour­nal” in which ev­ery­one adds to a por­trait of cli­mate change by de­tail­ing change in their own com­mu­ni­ties — or even back yards. Or pro­grams such as SciS­tarter, which are de­signed to help peo­ple find an in­trigu­ing re­search project or even de­sign one.

And con­sider the cor­re­spond­ing in­crease of books on the sub­ject over the past sev­eral years. These in­clude Shar­man Rus­sell’s lovely “Di­ary of a Ci­ti­zen Sci­en­tist” and Chan­dra Clarke’s “Be the Change: Sav­ing the World With Ci­ti­zen Science,” both from 2014; last spring’s “The Right­ful Place of Science: Ci­ti­zen Science” by Dar­lene Cav­a­lier and Eric B. Kennedy; and this fall’s el­e­gant quasi-mem­oir “Ci­ti­zen Sci­en­tist: Search­ing for He­roes and Hope in an Age of Ex­tinc­tion” by Mary Ellen Han­ni­bal.

The most re­cent of these books, Caren Cooper’s “Ci­ti­zen Science: How Or­di­nary Peo­ple Are Chang­ing the Face of Dis­cov­ery,” is an en­gag­ing over­view of the move­ment writ­ten with the en­ergy and the en­thu­si­asm of a crusader for the cause. Cooper, the as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the bio­di­ver­sity re­search lab­o­ra­tory at the North Carolina Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral Sci­ences, re­cently re­ceived a grant from the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion to ex­pand and up­date the SciS­tarter pro­gram and is a be­liever in the idea that science should be­come less in­su­lar. “Sci­en­tific prac­tice is an au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tem with which to pro­duce trust­wor­thy knowl­edge,” she writes, “but it doesn’t have to be au­thor­i­tar­ian.”

Af­ter all, in­tel­li­gent ama­teurs have been im­prov­ing science for cen­turies. As an early ex­am­ple, Cooper cites the con­tri­bu­tions of 17th-cen­tury Am­s­ter­dam cloth mer­chant An­tonie van Leeuwen­hoek, still famed for his daz­zling im­prove­ments to mi­cro­scopes of the time. In fact, van Leeuwen­hoek not only de­vel­oped pow­er­ful new stan­dards of mag­ni­fi­ca­tion; he did such de­tailed stud­ies of mi­crobes (which he called an­i­mal­cules) that Eng­land’s Royal So­ci­ety rec­og­nized him as a re­searcher of merit.

About a cen­tury later, in the 1770s, the Amer­i­can pa­triot and rev­o­lu­tion­ary Thomas Jef­fer­son picked up the philo­soph­i­cal torch, or­ga­niz­ing a net­work of vol­un­teers to track cli­mate pat­terns in his new coun­try. Jef­fer­son, Cooper notes, went on to ex­per­i­ment with the de­signs of rain gauges and barom­e­ters; he “ab­horred gaps in his data.” And in past decades, ci­ti­zen sci­en­tists have worked with pro­fes­sional re­searchers on projects rang­ing from study­ing monarch habi­tat and Cal­i­for­nia wet­lands to mon­i­tor­ing East Coast sea tur­tles, count­ing la­dy­bugs and search­ing the skies for the shim­mer of dis­tant stars.

Ci­ti­zen as­tronomers, she points out, have on oc­ca­sion done such pi­o­neer­ing work that it blurs the lines be­tween the con­cept of am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional; we should re­mem­ber, Cooper notes, that some dis­tant plan­ets and comets were first sighted by ded­i­cated cit­i­zens with good tele­scopes. “Ama­teurs are unique among ci­ti­zen sci­en­tists in that they carry out in­de­pen­dent re­search just like pro­fes­sion­als do.” Mu­tual re­spect is a cen­tral point in the book; un­der­neath Cooper’s easy con­ver­sa­tional tone is a firm re­quest for more re­spect and less self-pro­tec­tive ar­ro­gance from her fel­low sci­en­tists.

Ci­ti­zen con­tri­bu­tions should be rec­og­nized by the re­search com­mu­nity, she ar­gues, and not only in as­tron­omy. She cites nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples in en­vi­ron­men­tal re­search, from Inuit work on ice depth in a time of cli­mate change to the on­line iWit­ness Pol­lu­tion Map, which al­lowed res­i­dents of Louisiana to up­load in­for­ma­tion on the im­pacts of the 2010 BP oil spill, and which con­tin­ues track­ing in­ci­dents to­day.

As the book’s sub­ti­tle sug­gests, Cooper sees gen­uinely rev­o­lu­tion­ary po­ten­tial in con­nect­ing pro­fes­sional re­searchers with their ci­ti­zen coun­ter­parts. She also sees the con­nec­tion as es­sen­tial to our preser­va­tion: “Ob­serv­ing and shar­ing our ob­ser­va­tions will be­come what it means to be a re­spon­si­ble hu­man be­ing re­sid­ing on planet earth.”

I don’t know that I’d go that far in as­sess­ing our fu­ture. But Cooper is an ex­cel­lent ad­vo­cate for to­day. When I fin­ished the book, I de­cided to check out ci­ti­zen sci­en­tist projects in my part of the coun­try. I’m look­ing, of course, for one with­out bees.



From count­ing bees to study­ing stars, am­a­teur sci­en­tists can make con­tri­bu­tions to pro­fes­sion­als’ work, Caren Cooper ar­gues. Science “doesn’t have to be au­thor­i­tar­ian,” she tells her fel­low re­searchers.

CI­TI­ZEN SCIENCE How Or­di­nary Peo­ple Are Chang­ing the Face of Dis­cov­ery By Caren Cooper Over­look. 294 pp. $28.95

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.