Citizen science as an alternative to Big Science

In this NYT guest editorial, Aaron Hirsh first describes the inevitability of Big Science approaches as scienfific communities grow to maturity, but also argues in the second part, that distributed citizen science is an alternative way to achieve bigness wihout centralization:

Aaron Hirsh:

If Big Science is what it takes to gather the truly precious data, what are we to do?

There is another way to extend our scientific reach, and I believe it can also restore some of what is lost in the process of centralization. It has been called Citizen Science, and it involves the enlistment of large numbers of relatively untrained individuals in the collection of scientific data. To return to our architectural metaphor, if Big Science builds the high-rise yet higher, Citizen Science extends outward the community of villages.

For me, an especially inspiring example of Citizen Science is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Every winter, from mid December to early January, tens of thousands of intrepid hobbyists fan out across North America, and together, they do their best to answer two basic questions: How many birds are there? And what kinds?

It’s a simple sort of data, to be sure, but it is nonetheless scientifically invaluable. The CBC dataset now covers 109 years, and this remarkable temporal extent, along with geographic range that spans the continent, enables scientists to address questions that would otherwise be as inaccessible as a Higgs boson. Just in the past few years, scientists have used the CBC dataset to track the emergence and impact of West Nile virus, to understand the ecological effects of competition between introduced species and to measure the shift that birds make toward the poles in response to global warming.

The CBC is surely a glowing exemplar, but there are many other cases of Citizen Science in action. Even underwater, a snorkeling citizen can serve science by taking down a few notes, which he’ll enter into a website when he returns to shore. The Internet is a natural medium for Citizen Science — widely distributed yet highly organized, it’s the ultimate network of villages — and an initiative known as The Encyclopedia of Life has called upon the world’s hobbyists to contribute their sundry discoveries to a Web-based library of species: one page per organism, featuring photos, taxonomy, natural history, even ecology.

Of course, Citizen Science won’t be very helpful in genome sequencing or particle physics. But it will be helpful — indeed, perhaps essential — for gathering a kind of data that will be increasingly important over the next few decades. Widespread networks of observers are especially well-suited to detecting global change — shifts in weather patterns; movements in the ranges of species; large-scale transformations of eco-systems — and that, unfortunately, is something we will need to know far more about if we are to mitigate and adapt to the fateful effects we are having on the planet.

In the end, though, what may be most important about Citizen Science is what it could mean for the relationship between citizens and science. When everyone is gathering data, that rather austere and forbidding tower becomes a shared human pursuit. In 1963, Alvin Weinberg, who was then the director of Oak Ridge, likened Big Science to the greatest monuments civilizations have ever built: the cathedrals of medieval Europe; the pyramids of Egypt.

But just as we build higher our temples of scientific investigation, so too should we strengthen their foundations, and broaden their congregations. Perhaps the new administration, which has already proven itself so skilled in using the Internet to coordinate broad networks of volunteers, ought to consider a national initiative in Citizen Science. It would provide us with timely data, and it would make us better citizens.”

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