The scientific elite have been moving forward with their advancements in science at an accelerated pace over the past one hundred years. It is this exponentially speedy development that is providing modest hope to even the Gen-X babies at reaching the moment in the near future--maybe as early as 2042--where living forever will be a technological reality.
This seemly unbounded, fast-forward approach is presumed to be an unquestioned modus operandi for the professional scientist. One must publish or perish in the academic world, and one must be the first to figure out the new science or you can just forget about that tenure track and lifetime job security.
It is also assumed that science, in general, is searching for the truth, and, it would seem that everyone might want to know the truth. And, if we are moving toward the truth sooner than later, then there should be nothing wrong with these sorts of noble, fast-pace, truth-seeking efforts. But, what does the broader populace think about all of the advances, and does what the non-scientific professional think and care about actually matter?
Margaret Wertheim, the director of the Institute of Figuring, recently wrote an opinion article for the Australian Broadcasting Company that presents a clear frustration about how seemingly unchecked advancements in science and technology are allegedly leading to the demise of the planet's global environment, especially that of coral reef ecosystems. A native of Australia and currently residing in Los Angeles, Ms. Wertheim focuses a great deal through the Institute on publicizing the crises being experienced by coral reefs and believes that citizens can really do something about it.
The idea presented is to develop influential panels composed of concerned citizens who can hear and learn about recent scientific advances, and then help evaluate and predict the potential repercussions of implementing the new science. This sort of "citizen science advisory panel" would possibly provide generalized recommendations, and even offer representative wishes from the masses as to what is desired to come out of new science and technology. The goal with this idea is to open up the dialog to not only present the new science, but to actively discuss its ramifications.
New opportunities for involved interactions between citizens and their society's professional scientists are becoming more critical for the continued advancement of science. The results of these sorts of interactions today offer more efficient and wide-spread data collection capabilities for the professionals, and they provide an outstanding method for informal education so that more people will appreciate and understand the universe from the backyard to other galaxies.
Opening a formalized dialog between citizen scientists and professional academics can add to this productive collaboration. However, the purpose of the Ms. Wertheim's proposed panels could also offer a detrimental effect on the advancement of research if not focused correctly. The concern seems to be that advancing science is somehow out-of-control and directly leading to the destruction of ecosystems. Although it is certainly true that some technologies negatively impact our environment, there must be a clear distinction between the discussion about the study and research of new science and the implementation of new science.
A worrisome extreme case of a negative citizen science panel might be a group of non-scientists who collectively don't want to see certain advancements move forward for personal, religious, or narrow view-points. The panel would act to restrict the research either by trying to influence political policy decisions or filing lawsuits. Scientists would become so frustrated with the red-tape required to "make the masses happy" about their own work that it becomes entirely uninteresting to even pursue a career in academia. And, private research companies--who could possibly avoid the wrath of the panel--might become the primary source for science discovery, but then resulting in extreme secrecy, competition, and the exclusion of knowledge sharing to only further stifle new advancements.
On the other hand, a positive citizen science panel might be one that also participates in the research being considered, or at least is a representative body for a large-scale collaboration of citizen scientists from around the world. The panel could perform their discussion online or by web-based conferences hosted by local academic institutions.
If the panel is designed for a more generalized dialog with scientists with the goal of keeping the professionals in groove with the culture in which they work, the goal of the panel's feedback should be more focused on the implementation of a particular scientific advancement. Although a hypothetical citizen science advisory panel in the 1940's might have limited the development and utilization of an atomic bomb during World War II, for example, it should have maintained a role of addressing concerns about implementation of the science, and not on restricting the timely advancements in understanding of quantum mechanics and nuclear interactions.
In addition, professional scientists would have a long-term advantage to take part in the development of citizen science panels, whether they be advisory or collaborative. There can only be positive repercussions from bringing more people to a higher level of understanding of both established scientific understanding and cutting-edge research. With a broader appreciation from a culture, financial support of professional work will become easier to obtain and more individuals will be motivated to follow into the scientific research world.
This appreciation will also bring a more sophisticated approach to science policy-making by elected government officials. Sometimes it seems that governments lack so much understanding of basic scientific principals, that they rely heavily on resources that they can only hope to trust. This certainly increases the risk of irresponsible, illogical, and even dangerous science policy decisions being followed by a nation. By bringing more people into a realm of science appreciation, so much of this risk could be avoided.
Today, a few examples of citizens guiding science directions already exist. In particular, the Florida Citizens for Science is a group of people from all across the state who's mission is to promote good science, especially in the classroom. And, although this is not a panel organization that directly influences new scientific discoveries, it is a useful model for how citizens work together in an organized and responsible way to affect science learning in the United States. Many more of these grassroots organizations across America supporting science education can be found through Citizens for Science.
Most recently, a new network of professional and citizen scientists is currently being developed called ECAST, the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology. The goal of this future group is to help policymakers evaluate new science and technologies to better understand the potential social, economic and environmental impacts before making decisions on their implementation.
ECAST will not be comprised of only citizen scientists, but will be a broader collaboration between nonpartisan policy research institutions, universities and other science centers. The founding partners include The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, The Loka Institute, The Museum of Science, Boston, Science Cheerleader, and the Science and Technology Innovation Program from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
So, with the successful implementation of ECAST, a key test will be seen as to how effective and beneficial broader scientific advisory bodies can be for the positive integration of new science and technologies into society. Through these types of review committees, citizen scientists can become more involved in real scientific advancement and increase their importance in the development of new technology.
Another existing organization that could bring citizen scientists into a policy advising role is the Society for Amateur Scientists. This membership group already has collective of active citizen scientists who largely work independently on personally-interesting science and technology projects and research. Together, however, they could mobilize through the SAS to offer a new advisory council of active and motivated citizen scientists through partnerships with government and professional research centers. In addition, SAS might be a useful vehicle to develop participatory panels of volunteers. These panels would not only maintain an open and ongoing communication with the scientists on a particular research program from development, implementation, to analysis, but would also offer direct involvement with the data collection and reporting results.
If you are interested in finding a seat at either a future science policy advising or participatory table, please let us know what you think here, and consider contacting us at Dynamic Patterns Research to express your ideas and motivation. We would like to begin to develop a list of citizen scientists who believe that participatory and advising panels should become a critical element in future science research and implementation. We can then together move forward to prove this growing and important interest from citizen scientists, and consider joining an existing advising organization, or possibly create a new participatory panel that will partner with science research teams from around the world.
"Time to face the dark side of science" :: ABC Science, Margaret Wertheim :: August 17, 2010 :: [ READ ]
"Reinventing Technology Assessment for the 21st Century" :: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Richard Sclove, Ph. D. :: April 28, 2010 :: [ READ PRESS RELEASE :: READ FULL REPORT - PDF ]
Get involved with ECAST today by joining their mailing list [ JOIN ]