Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Citizen Scientists – Are They For Real?

Citizen scientists (Toby Ross/Seattle Audubon)

Blog Post By Pete Haase

Nowadays, in this business of volunteering in the environmental community around Puget Sound, I see citizen scientists behind every tree and on very beach.

There are often many of them grouped together doing their work.  They might have clip-boards, binoculars, square PVC things with strings in them, laminated cards with all sorts of critters and weeds on them, or a fancy GPS device. They often wear boots and sometimes are even up to their chests in the water.  Sometimes they just sit and watch and make a note now and again.  Other times they stride out like they are measuring with their legs.  You can see their lips move as they silently count.  Sometimes they are planting plants, sometimes they are measuring plants, and other times they are digging them up.  They are even in meetings.  They like eating donuts and drinking hot chocolate and coffee. I think possibly every family has one, maybe even two.  Little school kids can be one and training for it might even be part of the mandatory curriculum.

I’m one.  I know this because several “real” scientists have told me so and thanked me for being one!   Since about 2009, the rather official definition of “citizen scientist,” as agreed to by Washington Sea Grant and the Puget Sound Partnership, is one who “provides rigorous cost-effective data collection for research, monitoring, and management needs.” As an example, a person who knows some birds, can count and keep numbers straight, and can print legibly with pencil on Rite-in-the-Rain paper and participates in the Christmas bird count is a citizen scientist.  So is a person with a head-lamp who goes out at night at low tide and peeks under rocks to count and record the condition of wasting sea stars.  I think you get it. (Cheap, follows directions, has good all-weather gear.)  A worthy expense of time and effort.

But the combining of the two words, citizen and scientist, troubles and confuses me, although I am easily confused often, I admit.  (Frankly, anyone who is in the environmental volunteering business but is not often confused is lying.)

Can a “real” scientist be a citizen scientist, too?  Can a citizen scientist be a “real” scientist, too?  I say it is “no” and “no.”  You are one or the other – period.  This I know, again, because I have been told so often by the experts – the real scientists.  No: real scientists are scientists but citizen scientists are just partly scientists, the part that does grunt work but generally does not do much brain work.  That is odd to me because I know lots of volunteers who once did science as a job but are now retired and volunteer for fun. It seems like they can still be scientists, but I think generally they have to be the common citizen variety, too, maybe just with a bit more experience – the “old timers.” It’s like somebody did not think this term through too well – or it was maybe a committee result.  It is catchy.

I suppose that what makes the difference is mainly a combination of education and experience, the breadth of science work you are currently doing, who you are employed by, and how much you have published.  Miss the mark on any one of them and you are back to (or stay in) the slag heap of citizen scientist.  Why don’t they just call us scientist minions or such?

Do you know any citizen dentists? Citizen lawyers?  Citizen police officers?  Citizen teachers?  No – we citizen scientists belong to our own special guild, proud as we may be for the recognition but forever banned from making up experiments, doing research, posing hypotheses, teasing meaning from data, publishing, or speaking in garbled terms to esteemed audiences.

I think it is time to define a Senior Citizen Scientist - one who can design experiments, think for himself and herself, pose and test hypotheses, etc. There are, I bet, 25 citizen scientists right now for every real scientist, and many of them would qualify. Imagine how much more good work could be done! Senior Citizen Scientist  That IS a catchy name; scary, but catchy!  We need a logo.

[Pete Haase is an energetic environmental volunteer in Skagit County.  He likes being in the field with teams, doing things that he hopes will make a difference.  Much of what he does is citizen science.  Pete also like engaging the public, helping them appreciate volunteer efforts and getting them to add their voices in support of protection and restoration. Pete has been named by RE Sources as a 2015 environmental hero.]

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