By Sheldon Greaves
The title of this week’s Musings comes from an announcement I received recently for an upcoming conference sponsored by the World Future Society (Read more about this conference) this coming July. The description of this conference is as follows:
Thousands worldwide participate in citizen science projects, from counting backyard birds to searching for extraterrestrial communication. In-person and online, this popular pastime is evolving from hobby to serious science.
Uncertain future grant funding, the growing backlog of raw unexamined data, and an emerging scientific philosophy of inclusion trend to a new reliance on these amateur scientists to increasingly assume professional roles. From initiating crowdsourcing ventures through articulating hypotheses, conducting research, interpreting results and anticipating real-world applications, these citizen scientists will provide quality, cost-effective scientific inquiry while democratizing and reinvigorating disciplines once seen as elitist.
Collaborating through social media, citizen scientists will evolve from a scattered collection of amateurs to established members of academic and corporate research teams.
Challenges to the primacy of credentialed scientists and the integrity of the scientific process can be mitigated through formalized training provided by local community or technical colleges.
This announcement is a remarkably concise description of the state of citizen science, and describes some possible future paths. Some of these, such as using citizen scientists to examine and analyze raw data, is arguably the result of not having developed the software needed to do the job, so warm bodies are collected, given a nominal amount of training, and set to work.
But this conferences looks to examine the rise of citizen scientists doing things well beyond that, and I cannot but applaud. Articulating hypotheses, conducting research, and so on is what science really is. I also note with some interest the realization that at some point, formalized training would need to be a part of citizen science. The description cites local community or technical colleges, but I think it will go well beyond that.
Higher education is changing. Free online college courses combined with more and more open source textbooks, have created a unique opportunity for learning that yet lacks a good social environment. Social networks will provide some of that, but it won’t be adequate. Another question surrounds accreditation. Most state approval and accreditation processes deal largely with things like a school’s business model, cash reserves, tuition and fees, refund policies, collection policies, student loans, teacher salaries, i.e., things that concern money. When you have free courses and textbooks, nearly all of that goes away. What’s left are things like teacher qualifications, course rigor, grading policies and other things more strictly academic. I have speculated elsewhere that it might be time to think about the possibility of open source accreditation, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.
I think that at some point citizen scientists who aspire to work on what is now a professional or semi-professional level will need some kind of credential or perhaps a portfolio to establish themselves as credible scientists. My hope is that CSL can be part of this. For instance, I’d like to see CSL partner with universities and colleges to find ways to award college credit for high-quality amateur science. This would only be a partial solution since accrediting agencies have a pretty low cap on how many “experiential learning” credits a school can accept, but it’s one of several options.Â
But what I really enjoy seeing is the emergence of new learning communities that bypass institutions that cannot or will not rise to those occasions when learning is fashionable. This will be the real test of the vitality of citizen science: whether we can create our own working communities that can serve as learning and training environments. It’s something that happens once in awhile, when learning gets rediscovered and nothing, not even the intellectual gatekeepers, can forestall it.