Last weekend I made my first foray to Science Online or, as it is now called SpotOn, in London. It doesn’t matter that I still regard myself as a novice in the world of social media (and yes, the words impostor syndrome did pass my lips at one point during the afternoon), I had been invited to serve on two panel discussions. One, on the (in)visibility of women in science, I have already written a little about in advance, with its ever-growing roll-call of blogs and associated resources; the other dealt with the challenge of juggling science communication work – broadly interpreted – with the day job. The latter was a very interactive session, with plenty of thoughtful input from the floor, and a diverse bunch of us on the panel: Brian Wecht, a theoretical physicist recently arrived from the US as a Lecturer at QMUL who had dreamed up the Story Collider; Jenny Rohn, novelist, OT blogger and scientist (not necessarily in that order); Anne Osterreider, a postdoc in love with the Golgi apparatus and with a half-time position to oversee engagement work at Oxford Brookes University and myself. We were directed, steered and otherwise enthusiastically prompted by joint session organisers Heather Doran (just completing her PhD at Aberdeen) and Jonathan Lawson, a genetics student from Cambridge, who together had set up a great session.
It is interesting to reflect how times have changed on the ‘engagement/outreach’ front since I was a student. No one suggested such a thing to me back then, and Physics at Work, which now gives most of the PhD students at the Cavendish an annual opportunity to share their enthusiasm for science with school children, had not yet come into existence. I think there are various current drivers which encourage PI’s themselves to engage with the public, broadly defined, and also to be enthusiastic when their students want to do likewise. These drivers, fruitful though they may be on the engagement front, are most certainly not necessarily welcomed by academics across the board. I would identify both the dreaded ‘pathways to impact’ statements required by UK Research Councils and the REF2014 exercise to be relevant here; the latter requires each Unit of Assessment to produce an Impact Statement although, confusingly, their definition of impact is not identical to that of the Research Councils.
Additionally we now live in a world where public engagement may be explicitly identified as an appropriate part of an applicant for promotion’s ‘general contribution’, as it is in my own University’s promotion criteria. This may not be the norm elsewhere, as it was singled out by one of BIS’ s expert groups on Science and Society as notable, and a quick Twitter trawl only threw up a handful of places which did the same. Furthermore, both Brian Wecht and (from the floor) Paula Salgado pointed out how their engagement activities had played a very positive role in their appointments as lecturers. For those setting out on an academic career who share a love of standing up in front of a hall full of kids, putting science videos out on YouTube or writing a student science magazine, all this can only be encouraging.
At the session I was handed a copy of my own University’s student science magazine, Bluesci, the oldest of several local magazines now being produced by UK Universities, and currently edited by session organiser Jonathan Lawson. Reading this copy on the train home, I was struck by some thoughts on citizen science in an article by a trio of graduate students in the Life Sciences (Luke Mashman, Jordan Ramsay and Nick Crumpton) on ‘Armchair Experimentation’, because they seem so reminiscent of a worry that Victorian scientists such as Joseph Hooker would have recognized. Discussing these crowdsourced projects, of which Galaxy Zoo is the prime example, they write
‘The worry is that without scientific training, citizen scientists may not accurately collect data and may introduce bias into the results. Simple projects, like counting the number of animals in an area, leave little room for error, however as projects increase in complexity, such as identifying the species of animal in the area, the risk of inaccuracy also increases, with one study suggesting that volunteers are only just over 10 per cent more accurate at identifying species than random guessing.’
Hooker spent much of his life as Director at Kew, once his own travelling days on the Erebus voyage to Australasia were over, succeeding his father William Hooker in this role. He relied on ‘amateurs’, in far-flung parts of the Empire, to send him samples of new plants to facilitate identification, classification and the search for what might be ‘useful’ plants for Imperial Britain. He found the nature of these interactions intensely frustrating. He clearly felt that Kew, being the centre of the botanical universe, should be responsible for identifying new species and naming them, but some of those sending him specimens were unwilling to concede this to him and strains often arose, as the biography by Jim Endersby makes very clear. This was in part due to tension between colonialists proud of their own country’s natural history and the mother country who sought control. It was also due to dispute between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’ ie those who saw small variations as implying speciation as opposed to fluctuation in detail, possibly arising from differences in local soil or micro-climate so that ‘minute differences…when long dwelt upon…assume undue value’, as Hooker expressed it.
To quote from one of his letters
‘…..I feel sure that the New Zealand student will at first find it difficult to agree with me in many cases, as for example on so protean a Fern as Lomaria procera, whose varieties (to an inexperienced eye) are more dissimilar than are other species of the same genus. In this (and in many similar cases) he must bear in mind that I have examined many hundred specimens of the plant, gathered in all parts of the south temperate hemisphere, and have found, after a most laborious comparison, that I could not define its characters with sufficient comprehensiveness from a study of its New Zealand phases alone.’
In other words, I the ‘metromopolitan’ London expert, know more than you the local seeker and I can’t trust what you say. His solution was to ask the many local naturalists simply to send him their samples, with great care and attention as to the packaging, without attempting to name the species, but simply with a short description of ‘time, place and situation where it was gathered; of the stature, habit and other particulars of the kind of root it has; of the colour of the flower or of any other particulars which the specimen itself cannot supply or which may be lost in the process of drying’.
This was citizen science of a very different, Victorian and imperialist kind, but its concerns about accuracy are very similar to those expressed today. Some projects lend themselves better than others to mass observation and one always has to be aware of the dangers. Reading Endersby’s biography, I have to say Hooker came across as something of a control freak, but it may well have been no more than justified anxiety that misclassification did not propagate and confuse the work at Kew. Similar fears may well be shared by those who wish to draw upon some citizen science projects today, but that is not to say such ventures do not have many benefits which it would be a shame to lose. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that just because there have been periods when encouraging non-technical experts was not the norm, citizen science, with all its attendant concerns, is in fact nothing new although its manifestation may be.