January 2013, Week 2


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Sun, 13 Jan 2013 18:08:26 -0500
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The Most Stressful Science Problem
By Caren Cooper
Scientific American Blogs
January 10, 2013 

Last week Forbes Magazine listed university professor as
one of the top 10 least-stressful jobs. Academics,
particularly scientists, were indignant and flooded
Forbes with stories asserting stress levels that induce
Einstein hair in a world that doesn't appreciate their
work. There are two sides to science: the deadlines,
constant searches for funds, and long hours countered by
the pure joys of inquiry and discovery.

The Forbes article and ensuing one-upmanship reveals a
gulf between those in academia and the rest of the human
population; and the gulf reveals a serious problem with
science. Fortunately, there is a stress-free remedy.

The human race faces many big problems and decisions -
over-population, climate change, emerging diseases,
mountain-top removal, great garbage patches in the
ocean, and other urgent, contested issues. There are two
interlocking keys needed to solve these big problems:
(i) reliable knowledge of what can be done and (ii)
social capital to make it happen. (The social networks,
cohesion, and individual investment in community that
makes democracy work better are social capital). Right
now these two keys are separated from each other. The
scientific enterprise is not broken per se (it is still
making reliable knowledge), but it can't efficiently do
its part in solving problems while located apart from
society, so far apart that Forbes thinks it plausible
that academics don't work during unpaid summers.

Thus, the problem with science is simply where it is
situated. Science is positioned as a profession in the
ivory tower, in labs and universities on the periphery
of society, with its own norms and culture, out of reach
to most. Even though curiosity is a universal human
trait, the enterprise of scientific discovery is
cordoned off from most people, outside our culture, not
a part of our collective identity, not integrated into
our rituals and customs. It is carried out by an elite
few, making it an easy target for attacks on its
credibility and requiring specialized communicators to
bridge the enormous gap between those creating knowledge
and those for whom the knowledge is created.

Since the problem is location, the solution is
relocation. We need to relocate science from its
isolation and foster its growth in the mainstream of
society as an ongoing authentic collaboration between
the public and professionals. How can we possibly do

A particular style of science, called citizen science,
has already begun to do it, every day.

Citizen science refers to public participation in
genuine scientific research, as simple as sharing
observations of birds in backyards to as complex as
tracing brain neurons online. Citizen science is the
stress-free side of science: the games and hobbies of
discovery that people enjoy in their leisure. Citizen
science works because we are a curious species.

From the last decade of studying the phenomena of
citizen science, we have learned that citizen science
co-creates highly reliable scientific knowledge and
builds social capital.

Western scientific knowledge has brought humanity to a
pinnacle of health, comfort, and longevity. But it gets
credited with more than it deserves. We understand
weather and climate patterns because thousands of
weather stations are operated by volunteers, a
collaborative effort first envisioned by Thomas
Jefferson. We know impacts of climate change, such as
birds shifting the timing of nesting, because hundreds
of thousands of bird watchers have shared their
observations to central databases, with some projects
operating for more than 100 years. Although William
Whewell received a prestigious Royal medal for
contributions in the 1800s on the workings of tides, his
research was only possible because thousands of
volunteers on both sides of the Atlantic helped measure
tides simultaneously for two weeks straight. Even
seemingly obscure knowledge, such as the average person
has 50 types of bacteria living in their navel, was co-
created knowledge gained through citizen science. The
examples go on.

Also, credit goes to traditional ecological (indigenous)
knowledge. We know the extracts from Madagascar
periwinkle can treat diabetes because drug companies
save time and money by using indigenous knowledge to
narrow their search for medicines. Traditional
ecological knowledge is often misunderstood,
romanticized or belittled, when it is simply locally
reliable knowledge produced slowly (over millennia)
under the direction of shared cultural values.

Co-created knowledge via citizen science is a hybrid: as
quick and extendable as professional scientific
knowledge and potentially integrated into our culture
somewhat like traditional knowledge. Citizen science re-
locates science into our daily lives, our hobbies, and
our shared human culture.

Despite being the forbearer of professional science and
experiencing a recent surge with the aid of information
and communication technologies, citizen science is still
in its infancy. From it we learn to coordinate massive
collaborations that accumulate input from more people
than ever before. If we grow its potential, we have an
opportunity to develop systems of engagement and
participation aimed at collective problem-solving.

I work at one hub of citizen science, the Cornell Lab of
Ornithology. Leave the Einstein hair to me and bring
science out to you through the doors opened by citizen
science. The sooner we learn to co-create knowledge, the
better our chance to pull humanity through the complex
challenges we face to create an environmentally,
socially, and economically sustainable society. 

About the Author: Caren Cooper, PhD, is a Research
Associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She studies
bird behavior, reproduction, and ecology at large scales
using data from citizen science networks. In addition,
Cooper works with social scientists to study why people
get involved in citizen science and nature-based
recreation. She has analyzed how citizen-science methods
have been used to aid urban planning, e-governance, and
policy initiatives. She is writing a nonfiction book
about citizen science and is a Senior Fellow in the
Environmental Leadership Program. Follow on Twitter


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