Earlier this month, I had the immense honor of sharing the stage with Bill Nye and some fascinating thought leaders in space exploration from academia and industry, thanks to the leaders at Arizona State University’s New Space. We talked about colonizing Mars, mining asteroids, women in STEM and more. Amid all the exciting, forward-looking discussions, bolstered by the super-pumped-up audience of 3500 ASU students, I couldn’t help but think about the voice we needed to hear as we imagined YOUR place in space: YOUR voice. A decade ago, YOUR voice (and your tax dollars, your values, your informed opinions) would have been represented by your elected officials, or the noisiest advocacy groups, or industry.
I know this because exactly 10 years ago, I was wrapping up my master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania where I spent a lot of time learning about people like me, like us: people who are interested in science, who want to be part of science–of discovery, of shaping the future–but who don’t hold formal science degrees.
The degree from Penn wasn’t what motivated me. I went back to school after a decade of working at Discover Magazine (and, believe or not, after a few years as an NBA cheerleader!) so I could learn more about my role in science and society. Where does someone without a formal science degree fit in? For all the investment in time and money we give to K-12 STEM education, what are we doing to support the majority of those kids who don’t go to college or, if they do, who choose non-STEM careers?
What are we doing to take seriously the fact that, while our nation’s students rank low on international STEM exams, year after year, our nation’s adults (US) fair exceptionally well when compared to our peers in other countries? This must seem impossible. How can that be when our country has resisted scientifically sound issues such as climate change, vaccines, GMOs and stem cell research? Because the resistance stems from all the factors that shape science and science policy: values, economics, personal benefits, etc. Teaching people more science via the all-too-common deficit approach does not work.
How do we start real conversations with–and tap the talents and interests of–adults who have demonstrated that they/we like science? Did you know that more Americans visit science museums, zoos and aquariums than sports events? I didn’t…read more about this here. What are we doing to support us and enable us to be part of these conversations we are absolutely every bit entitled to be part of, NOW?
Well, almost immediately upon starting graduate school, I learned about citizen science. This is often described as crowdsourcing, community science, or public participation in scientific research. It usually takes the form of a scientist asking the public to share observations or analyze data to help advance areas of research.
I couldn’t wait to jump in and participate in formal and informal research projects in need of my help! Back then, it was difficult to find these opportunities. This is how SciStarter emerged. It was a very simple, searchable database embedded in a blog called Science Cheerleader, created to help me organize projects I was going to write about in my Capstone paper. I invited people to add projects or find projects. Before too long, this database spawned its own start up, featuring 1100 projects and a community of more than 50,000 citizen scientists.
Today, SciStarter’s database is shared with Discover Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, the National Science Teachers Association, the U.N., PBS, AllForGood, and many other partners. Thanks to support from the Simons Foundation, anyone can add citizen science to their website via simple to use, embeddable widgets. We are coPIs of research projects; universities and agencies hire us to organize and manage projects and participants; we have a syndicated blog network and a series on an NPR radio station. We’re really happy with developments at SciStarter.
BUT, most of these projects either invite people to share observations about the natural world or analyze big data. Very few offer people the opportunity to impart their local knowledge, values, insights, etc, directly to inform science policy.
Things are starting to change a bit thanks to the efforts of a LOT of people spanning many fields, motives, and generations.
Ten years ago, I started pushing to reopen the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which I thought had the most potential to bring together the public and scientists in shaping science policy. While interviewing experts to learn more about the rise and fall of the OTA, I found some soulmates-of-sorts and five years later our merry band of renegades officially organized.
Dr. Richard Sclove (left of me, pictured here with the cofounders of ECAST) wrote in Issues in Science and Technology, why it was high-time to formalize a mechanism to invite non-experts to both learn about and weigh in on the societal implications of emerging technologies and their related policies. Check out his essay:Reinventing_Tech_Assessment_-_Sclove_in_Issues_in_S&T_-_Fall_2010-1
Earlier that same year, Dr. Sclove, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Boston Museum of Science, Arizona State University, and I (as the Science Cheerleader and founder of what would become SciStarter), joined forces to launch the first-of-its-kind effort in the U.S. to realize this vision: ECAST, Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology. Read more on this, here. ECAST is taking the best of the defunct OTA and spicing things up by borrowing best practices from successful participatory technology assessment activities in the European Union.
Last year, ECAST worked with NASA to inform and then solicit input from people from all walks of life, to better understand what important questions were missing from science policy considerations. People involved in those deliberations sure had a lot to add to the conversations. I encourage you to read more about the effort and outcomes of Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. You’ll see that space exploration-the future- is complex and absolutely needs your perspective. Thanks to forward-thinking Federal agencies, like NASA, NOAA and others with an authentic interest in soliciting informed input from YOU, ECAST is able to experiment with mechanisms to unite the public with policymakers and scientists.
Looking ahead, the SciStarter team wants to see more opportunities spanning a wider spectrum of engagement levels, like those we organize at ECAST. We want to help more people find and get involved in all of these opportunities. We want to help you keep track of your contributions and maybe even be rewarded for your efforts. Why not? Maybe you didn’t finish high school. Maybe you earned an advanced degree in business or the arts. You connected with science later in life (like me!). You had the courage to move from spectator to participant. Why shouldn’t your contributions be validated and rewarded with college credit or career advancements or a free cup of coffee from Starbucks? 🙂
These are the types of questions we will start to address thanks to support from the National Science Foundation. The NSF awarded a $300,000 Pathways grant to Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society (of which I am a proud Professor of Practice!) for the development of SciStarter 2.0. The grant will advance the growing field of citizen and community science and help us build the capacity to be able to start to test some theories while scaling up our ability to engage and support more citizen scientists.
So, now that government and the scientific community have stepped up to the plate to welcome you with open arms and now that SciStarter (and others!) have made it very easy for you to get involved, the question is, will you accept the invitation? Make 2016 the year you accept the challenge. Do a citizen science project. Go to a science festival or science cafe. Get involved in an ECAST project.
You’ve got 300 Science Cheerleaders (including me) rooting for you and ready to support you!