Issue Date: December 7, 2015
Citizens Take Action
Thanks for your two revealing articles on citizen science (C&EN, Sept. 14, pages 12 and 18). I was not surprised to read some fine examples of work by citizen organizations but was astonished to learn of the legal prohibition of volunteer environmental monitoring in some states.
Certainly our profession needs to guard both against results-driven data collection by overzealous volunteers and against plain sloppy work. But the reality is that the effect of money is much more corrosive, regardless of who does the actual work. Some commercial interests will inevitably try to control the consultants they hire to produce the results they want. Prohibition of independent studies ensures that only their voice is heard.
With appropriate controls, I believe citizen scientists not only have much to offer but they are essential to providing effective environmental solutions. Society is simply not willing to fund the full cost of environmental monitoring, but there are plenty of competent volunteers willing to help. My own experience is that once they have the training, volunteers are willing to follow the science and can serve as excellent technicians. Monitoring by volunteers allows the few available professionals to concentrate on project management, method development, and analysis of results.
Our increasingly developed society will require increased environmental scrutiny. Fortunately, our highly educated citizenry has the ability to meet this need. One example of the vast potential of volunteers is found in the same C&EN issue in the article “Working with Wikipedia” (C&EN, Sept. 14, page 36). Our task is not to stand in the way but to train and inspire future citizen scientists.
The articles on citizen scientists are a great example of how cooperation between individuals and government agencies can benefit us all, especially in the environmental arena. I think these kinds of programs should be encouraged as much as possible.
However, it is not clear to me that there are safeguards in place to ensure that citizen scientists do not overtly or inadvertently insert any of their own personal or group bias into the process or the data. As a taxpayer and beneficiary of their dedication and volunteerism, I certainly hope that someone who is really qualified and knowledgeable on the regulations and sampling methods is “watching the watchers.”
James F. White
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