Reflections on Bridging the Gulf

By Christian Belcher, Departing Commons Lab Intern

EachChristian year the Commons Lab hosts a number of Interns for 3-12 month appointments. These Interns support our research and outreach efforts, learning about citizen science and meeting key community members in the process. Because we are interested in understanding how newcomers appreciate the paradigm of citizen science, we ask each to blog about their experiences during their last week at the Wilson Center.

Christian Belcher is a rising senior at Georgetown University, majoring in Political Economy and minoring in Political and Social Thought. He hopes to shape public policy one day by employing the skills he has garnered in both the professional and academic settings.

Admittedly, I haven’t taken a science class since my freshman year of college – an introductory course in astronomy aimed at appeasing the “monkey on my back” that was general education requirements. To make matters worse, I’m about as fluent in Python or C++ as I am in Esperanto. So at first glance, I was perhaps the least-likely candidate for an internship with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Program. That said, the skill transfer from previous academic research projects, and the value of an “outsider perspective,” enabled me to feel that, despite being out-of-my-league at times, at least I was playing the same sport.

The initial unfamiliarity, and subsequent intimidation, that I felt during my first week on the job may in fact mirror how other laymen regard professional science as a whole. But if that is at all the case, then citizen science projects are perhaps the best way to address these inhibitions; they help bridge the gulf between the public and the ivory tower of academia. Citizen science is science democratized. As such, it presents us with many of the same opportunities and challenges that face our system of government today. Just as we should strive to increase voter turnout, we must encourage participation in community-based science. There is a substantial amount of overlap between the most politically-active demographics, and those most likely to participate in a citizen science project – neither of which offers an accurate depiction of the population as a whole.

I believe that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the tremendous potential that citizen science and crowdsourcing methods bare, for the citizen, the scientist, and society alike. Whether it’s documenting the effects of climate change, altered migratory patterns, or health diagnostics for epidemiological studies, anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can make meaningful contributions to revolutionary studies. The field is still in its adolescence; common vocabularies and standardization are on their way, along with federal policies aimed proliferating their implementation. The Holdren memo got the ball rolling, but what’s next? How about integrating a nation-wide citizen science project into primary school curricula? First-graders in Alaska have proven invaluable in the effort to document the spread of invasive species – imagine what fifty states’ worth of them could do.

Crowdsourcing has already begun to stand on its own, and proven profitable to the private sector, through platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Researchers and companies are starting to appreciate the “wisdom of the crowd,” and won’t need the training wheels of federal backing much longer. That said, I think that the role played by the federal government, and federally sponsored platforms like Challenge.gov and Citizenscience.gov, will only become more invaluable in time. And with ubiquity will come an even greater demand for accessible resources and best practices, the kind provided and promoted by groups like the CSA, ECSA, and ACSA. Who knows, maybe there will be a day when crowdsourcing and citizen science are seen not as novel or innovative, but normal and instinctive.

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