Book Review: The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science


I know you folks are busy, so I’ll give you the short version of this review up front. If you’re sufficiently interested, you can read more in-depth after that. I’m reviewing The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science for a few reasons: first, I’ve worked with three of the authors, second: I’m interested in the topic; and third: I believe that the field provides multiple opportunities for technical writers to communicate about science and to participate in scientific endeavors without the need to obtain a scientific degree. 

Citizen Science introduces the reader to the topic through several perspectives and explains the various ways it can be important to how science is or could be conducted. It’s worth your time!

What is “citizen science” and why should we care?

Citizen science can be defined as laypersons (as opposed to technically trained professionals) conducting various parts of a scientific experiment or study, from collecting data to analyzing it to even helping set the agenda for which scientific questions should be investigated.

Prior to the 19th century, most of science (“natural philosophy”) was performed by dedicated amateurs; then came the creation of a “science establishment” with laboratories, funding organizations, official degrees and titles, and universities. By the middle of the 20th century, World War II had centralized funding of science and technology projects within the government, with exemplars like the atomic bomb and (later) the space program. The problem with these “Big Science” programs and institutions is that they set up scientists as some sort of secret cabal or even priesthood, where only those who knew the mysteries being allowed to participate. This distance between professional scientists, engineers, and the vast majority of the population has created gaps in understanding, access, and policy engagement, which is problematic given how much of our daily lives is affected by science and technology.

The book itself addresses a variety of topics related to citizen science, including the editor Darlene Cavalier’s path to becoming a citizen scientist; the impacts of citizen science on science policy; the educational opportunities in the field; how the field is reported on in the media and how practitioners communicate among themselves; how citizen science can be tied to a social or political movement; how it can be used to engage young people and introduce them to new fields of study; and how it can impact the relationships laypersons have with the scientific community and our government, which funds most of the science in this country.

If that sounds like a lot to cover, it is. What’s even more impressive is that the writers/editors address all of these topics within a tidy 133 pages. I read it in the space of a single afternoon. It’s worth doing.

Here endeth the short version. Below are my detailed observations on the book’s essays and how they can relate to technical communicators.

Introduction

Darlene Cavalier’s organization Science Cheerleader is a group of now over 300 current and former NFL/NBA cheerleaders pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). SciCheer has been Darlene’s vehicle for challenging stereotypes and changing hearts and minds about “who looks like a scientist” and who can participate in STEM activities. The cheerleaders themselves attend science-related events and talk to Pop Warner cheerleading teams about STEM careers. They even do science-themed cheers.

[* Full Disclosure: For eight years I’ve been Science Cheerleader’s “go-fer”* (a.k.a. “Gopher“). I handle a lot of the “backstage” logistical activity, like maintaining the SciCheer database, finding volunteers for events, making sure they have what they need at events, and posting content on the website. Despite my connections to those activities, I had no hand in contributing to this book, and in fact hadn’t done any citizen science of my own until last year.]

In addition to forming Science Cheerleader, she also founded SciStarter.com, a website that was explained to me as a “Match.com for people who want to do real science projects at home.” SciStarter has become a clearing house for citizen scientists seeking projects that meet their interests, and now has over 1,600 projects for people interested in doing anything from astronomy to zoology. She also worked with several other organizations to form ECAST, “Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology,” a group of institutions dedicated to including citizen voices in science and technology policy discussions.

Darlene is one of the brightest, most ambitious people I know. In addition to all of the above, she has now produced this book, which takes her citizen scientist journey that much further by laying out for the public what citizen science is and what it could accomplish. As she puts it in the introduction, “My aim in all this–in the creation of Science Cheerleaders, SciStarter, ECAST, and this book–is ultimately to empower ordinary people to contribute to science, and for their voices to be influential in ongoing science policy debates.” (Like I said: ambitious!) This is exactly the sort of space technical communicators can occupy in the public sphere, as one of our primary duties is to help members of the public engage with STEM topics clearly and effectively.

Chapter 1: When Citizen Science Meets Science Policy

Chapter 1, written by Arizona State University Ph.D. candidate and co-editor Eric B. Kennedy, describes the political environment citizen scientists have faced in the last ten years. Much of the work being done by citizen scientists today has been made possible by the internet, mobile devices, and the efforts of people like Darlene, who are interested in participating in the process of science and making sure that scientific work benefits individuals directly.

This has not been easy, as the “priesthood” of science (and engineering) tends to look upon citizen scientists as incompetent amateurs incapable of understanding what “real science” is or how it’s done. However, grassroots scientific endeavors can and do affect policy. An early example of this citizen-driven effort began in response to the spread of AIDS in the 1980s. In order to overcome apathy in the medical community, citizen activists–many of them patients themselves–had to learn the language of science, get smart on the science, and understand how pharmaceutical companies conducted field trials of treatment medications. Once they could “speak the language,” the activists could better communicate with and move the policy makers.

In addition to institutional disdain toward their efforts, citizen scientists also can face a lack of funding. Not every U.S. Government agency has been sold on the practice yet, and those that have, such as EPA or NASA, have limited budgets for citizen-science-driven projects. Still, it shows how far citizen scientists have come when legislation is proposed that authorizes federal agencies to use crowdsourcing and citizen science approaches to conduct their activities. Still, despite these efforts, the democratic (lower-case D) approach to science upsets a lot of apple carts, both among the science priesthood and the halls of Congress, which are used to an expert-based approach to science and technology. Technical communicators, many of whom are employed by large technocratic organizations, can serve as “translators” between citizen concerns and science policy.

Chapter 2: Two Meanings of Citizen Science

Caren B. Cooper and Bruce V. Lewenstein focus chapter 2 on examples of citizen science in action as well as how it can operate in the future. They cite a book by British sociologist Alan Irwin, which first coined the phrase “citizen science” and also described two ways it could improve the relationship between private citizens and the practice of science:

  1. Science should address the needs and concerns of citizens, and seek to meet those needs.

  2. The process of producing reliable knowledge could be developed and enacted by citizens themselves. People bring into science such things as local contextual knowledge and real-world geographic, political, and moral constraints generated outside of formal scientific institutions.

This chapter also included something that warmed my English major’s heart: a definition of citizen science  from the Oxford English Dictionary:

“the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.”

Cooper and Lewenstein also share some examples of citizen science going right back to 1776, when Thomas Jefferson made plans to collect weather data across the Commonwealth of Virginia. And the practice has continued right up to the present, where a citizen science project investigating the quality of tap water in Flint, Michigan shook up not just the local government, but the state and even the Environmental Protection Agency. Again, technical communicators can find ways to partner with citizen scientists and serve as advocates in science-related issues.

Chapter 3: Teaching Students How to Discover the Unknown

In Chapter Robert R. Dunn and Holly L. Menninger turn their attention to science education and how citizen science could improve traditional pedagogy. Fair warning: If you don’t like reading about dissections and the like, move on to the next bit.

They begin their chapter viscerally–pun intended–discussing how medical students in the 1400s would dissect corpses to compare them with what had been written by the ancient Greeks. In other words, they were performing the exercise merely to confirm that what they had been taught before matched what they saw in the real world. Anyone who’s taken biology in high school and college knows that dissection exercises haven’t changed much in 500 years: we’re still mostly confirming what science has already taught us, and then the animal or human carcasses are disposed of.

What Dunn and Menninger wondered was whether those dissection exercises could be turned into something more useful:

Wouldn’t it be great, we collectively thought, to use citizen science as a means for engaging students across North Carolina and beyond in authentic research, to create opportunities for middle school students to make real scientific discoveries?

For example, let’s say that rather than just opening up a frog and matching up its guts with what’s in the textbook, what if the students were instructed to find if anything was wrong with what they saw? Did the frog have tumors? Extra limbs? Strange discoloration? That would give the students something more constructive to do. The authors’ project, Students Discover, is aiming to find other ways to make basic science education more useful and engaging.

The field of science education publishing, while very much dominated by science and education specialists, in my opinion still has room and need for professional communicators who can help subject matter experts translate technical information into engaging content.

Chapter 4: When Citizen Science Makes the News

Lily Bui, who just completed her Master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies at MIT*, takes on the discussion of how science activities (by professionals and private individuals) are communicated to the public. She examines how mass media (TV, radio, newspapers) communicate vs. micromedia (blogs, social media). Mass media, of course, is mostly in “transmit” mode, where messages are directed at the audience and all the audience can do is absorb the message without the ability to respond to or change it.

[*Note: I met Lily at the USA Science & Engineering Festival and have since become a Facebook friend/follower of hers. She’s one of those multitalented folks you usually read about in science fiction novels: she does communication, electronics, music, art, surfing, and skateboarding. She also travels the world and is pursuing a Ph.D. in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where she’s working on using citizen-monitored sensors to measure things like urban air quality. You know: a slacker.]

Rather than focusing on mass media as a means for communicating about citizen science, Bui suggests that the community “should shift toward the ritualistic model (e.g., many disparate sources collaboratively construct the universe of citizen science media) to raise public awareness about science; induct participants in citizen science projects; and close the feedback loop between the public, scientists, and media outlets.” This makes sense, as the citizen science community is constantly learning more, seeking advice, and trying to expand its capabilities.

Still, Bui believes that citizen scientists can reach the public through more public mass media, especially publicly funded radio and TV outlets (NPR, PBS, etc.). This connection makes sense because of the educational mission of these networks, their tendency to incorporate both national and local interests, and a spirit of learning and volunteerism. She then goes on to share some examples of citizen science discussions on public networks, including WHYY in Philadelphia, KVNF in Western Colorado,  and WNYC in New York, as well as a citizen science-focused website by the PBS science show NOVA.

Technical communicators interested in writing for radio or TV might find a home in your local PBS station, where good educational programming is always needed.

Chapter 5: Social Movement-Based Citizen Science

Gwen Ottinger, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s Department of Politics and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, devotes Chapter 5 to showing how people in areas performing hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) used scientific methods and citizen science to monitor air quality in their areas. The citizens involved were concerned about how the chemicals released in fracking could be affecting their health.

Rather than try to protest or override established science, they called upon reputable, sympathetic scientists who could give them the scientific methodology and (for lack of a better word) gravitas to be heard by policy makers. Drawing upon knowledge learned on the internet and working with science practitioners, they evaluated which air sampling devices would be most effective as well as how often they would need to collect samples. Their report reflects that combined effort.

Ottinger notes how this report exemplifies social movement-based citizen science in the following ways:

  • Research questions grow directly out of the questions and concerns of citizen scientists;

  • Credentialed scientists participate as allies, providing resources and advice without driving the research;

  • Activists use innovative methods, including “do-it-yourself” (DIY) instruments;

  • Questions and methods implicitly or explicitly challenge the adequacy of standard scientific approaches; and, as a result,

  • Social movement groups engaged in citizen science face tradeoffs between scientific legitimacy and political efficacy.

Ottinger digs into the question of whether citizen scientists, concerned about a particular situation, might “cook” their data or do their work to ensure a specific outcome. However, she points out that this can just as easily be a problem in credentialed scientific practice but is just as unusual. She contends that “If anything, citizen scientists who want to challenge accepted approaches are likely to be even more committed to making sure their methods are beyond reproach.”

Concerned citizen technical communicators can serve as a bridge between laypeople and the scientific community. The report this group generated was distributed via the activist community in a more plain-language format as well as in the scientific community as a formal paper, giving additional credibility to their work. Each type of publication has its own forms of communicating, with different audiences expressing particular needs.

Chapter 6: Citizen Microbiology: A Case Study in Space

David Coil, a scientist at University of California-Davis, served as the Principal Investigator on Project MERCCURI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on ISS [International Space Station]). This was a combined effort among UC-Davis, Science Cheerleader, SciStarter, and Pop Warner. The goal was to collect microbes from people’s cell phones and sneakers via sterilized cotton swabs; pack and ship them to a lab; and then characterize what sorts of microbes were found. From there, some of the samples were sent to ISS to see if similar microbes were present in space and to see how they would multiple inside the Station.

While I was handling the logistical challenges of identifying how many kits were going to which cheerleading teams and when (and going to the launch–yay!), Coil and his investigative team had more complicated problems to worry about, like which samples to collect, how to get them to the lab quickly, and how to avoid privacy concerns. We have a lot of microbes inside our bodies, after all, and if volunteers were asked to take swabs of microbes off their own bodies, there would be privacy issues to contend with. Even when swabbing shoes and cell phones, the microbe-collecting volunteers had to sign a detailed consent form. Also, certain biological specimens can be held up in Customs if they are sent from overseas, so the samples were collected only from the U.S. Some samples did not survive because they were left in the back seat of a car for a couple days. Another set was contaminated because the original sterile swabs were lost and the participants tried to use off-the-shelf swabs instead.

Looking to the future, Coil expressed hope that additional citizen-based microbiology science can be performed. In addition to the concerns noted above, he noted that some of the work would be better handled in a lab. For instance, citizen scientists, upon acquiring a new microbe, might have no idea how it will react or multiply in a standard growth medium. Still, Coil looked upon Project MERCCURI as a successful outreach opportunity, as it got people thinking about the microscopic life in our daily environment–healthy, unhealthy, or neutral–and overcome perceptions like “germs are gross.”*

[*Germs, per se, might not be gross. However, when I met David Coil at the launch, he explained to me the concept of fecal transplants as a way to help someone’s interior microbiological ecology improve. “It’s just what it sounds like,” he said. Yep, that’s gross.]

Written communications about citizen science experiments can take many forms, from formal scientific papers to advocacy reports (as noted in the last chapter) to articles for the general public. The more challenging the content, the more necessary it will be for technical communicators to help establish connections between audiences and science.

Conclusion

Summarizing the previous chapters, Darlene Cavalier and Eric Kennedy also return to an ambitious call to arms: “Citizen science is about much more than just the scientific process itself–it’s a fundamental reorienting of power relations among citizens, government, and society as a whole.”

When I posted my rating for this book on Goodreads.com, I gave Citizen Science four stars. I usually reserve five stars for books that change my thinking radically; however, I was already a “believer” in citizen science, so they didn’t need to do much convincing. This is a worthwhile book for introducing educators, science professionals, elected officials (and their staffers) to the concept of citizen science and the potential good it can do.

If there were a couple things I would like to have seen, it would have been showing how citizen science could be an excellent vehicle for science education among home-schooled children; also, I would have liked to see a chapter on the engineering version of citizen science: the “maker” culture. Like science education, students taking engineering education get a whole lot more out of the experience with hands-on activities and real-world projects than just book reading and theoretical exercises. Regardless of whether one’s interest is in science or engineering (or neither–I was an English major after all), having a working understanding of how science and engineering can be used to affect our world can help our nation’s young people improve their rankings compared to the rest of the world.

This book is concerned primarily with science education and practice–and it is worth reading on that basis. However, I also encourage technical communicators who are interested in bridging the gap or translating between science/technology practitioners and the general public to consider what opportunities citizen science might open up in the future.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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