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 and respected 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 she 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.
By Caren Cooper
294 pp. $28.95