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The Most Stressful Science Problem

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last week Forbes Magazine listed university professor as one of the top 10 least-stressful jobs. Academics, particularly scientists, were indignant and flooded Forbes with stories asserting stress levels that induce Einstein hair in a world that doesn’t appreciate their work. There are two sides to science: the deadlines, constant searches for funds, and long hours countered by the pure joys of inquiry and discovery.

The Forbes article and ensuing one-upmanship reveals a gulf between those in academia and the rest of the human population; and the gulf reveals a serious problem with science. Fortunately, there is a stress-free remedy.

The human race faces many big problems and decisions – over-population, climate change, emerging diseases, mountain-top removal, great garbage patches in the ocean, and other urgent, contested issues. There are two interlocking keys needed to solve these big problems: (i) reliable knowledge of what can be done and (ii) social capital to make it happen. (The social networks, cohesion, and individual investment in community that makes democracy work better are social capital). Right now these two keys are separated from each other. The scientific enterprise is not broken per se (it is still making reliable knowledge), but it can’t efficiently do its part in solving problems while located apart from society, so far apart that Forbes thinks it plausible that academics don’t work during unpaid summers.

Thus, the problem with science is simply where it is situated. Science is positioned as a profession in the ivory tower, in labs and universities on the periphery of society, with its own norms and culture, out of reach to most. Even though curiosity is a universal human trait, the enterprise of scientific discovery is cordoned off from most people, outside our culture, not a part of our collective identity, not integrated into our rituals and customs. It is carried out by an elite few, making it an easy target for attacks on its credibility and requiring specialized communicators to bridge the enormous gap between those creating knowledge and those for whom the knowledge is created.

Since the problem is location, the solution is relocation. We need to relocate science from its isolation and foster its growth in the mainstream of society as an ongoing authentic collaboration between the public and professionals. How can we possibly do this?

A particular style of science, called citizen science, has already begun to do it, every day.

Citizen science refers to public participation in genuine scientific research, as simple as sharing observations of birds in backyards to as complex as tracing brain neurons online. Citizen science is the stress-free side of science: the games and hobbies of discovery that people enjoy in their leisure. Citizen science works because we are a curious species.

From the last decade of studying the phenomena of citizen science, we have learned that citizen science co-creates highly reliable scientific knowledge and builds social capital.

Western scientific knowledge has brought humanity to a pinnacle of health, comfort, and longevity. But it gets credited with more than it deserves. We understand weather and climate patterns because thousands of weather stations are operated by volunteers, a collaborative effort first envisioned by Thomas Jefferson. We know impacts of climate change, such as birds shifting the timing of nesting, because hundreds of thousands of bird watchers have shared their observations to central databases, with some projects operating for more than 100 years. Although William Whewell received a prestigious Royal medal for contributions in the 1800s on the workings of tides, his research was only possible because thousands of volunteers on both sides of the Atlantic helped measure tides simultaneously for two weeks straight. Even seemingly obscure knowledge, such as the average person has 50 types of bacteria living in their navel, was co-created knowledge gained through citizen science. The examples go on.

Also, credit goes to traditional ecological (indigenous) knowledge. We know the extracts from Madagascar periwinkle can treat diabetes because drug companies save time and money by using indigenous knowledge to narrow their search for medicines. Traditional ecological knowledge is often misunderstood, romanticized or belittled, when it is simply locally reliable knowledge produced slowly (over millennia) under the direction of shared cultural values.

Co-created knowledge via citizen science is a hybrid: as quick and extendable as professional scientific knowledge and potentially integrated into our culture somewhat like traditional knowledge. Citizen science re-locates science into our daily lives, our hobbies, and our shared human culture.

Despite being the forbearer of professional science and experiencing a recent surge with the aid of information and communication technologies, citizen science is still in its infancy. From it we learn to coordinate massive collaborations that accumulate input from more people than ever before. If we grow its potential, we have an opportunity to develop systems of engagement and participation aimed at collective problem-solving.

I work at one hub of citizen science, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Leave the Einstein hair to me and bring science out to you through the doors opened by citizen science. The sooner we learn to co-create knowledge, the better our chance to pull humanity through the complex challenges we face to create an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable society.

Caren Cooper About the Author: Caren Cooper, PhD, is a Research Associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She studies bird behavior, reproduction, and ecology at large scales using data from citizen science networks. In addition, Cooper works with social scientists to study why people get involved in citizen science and nature-based recreation. She has analyzed how citizen-science methods have been used to aid urban planning, e-governance, and policy initiatives. She is writing a nonfiction book about citizen science and is a Senior Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program. Follow on Twitter @CoopSciScoop.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 3:10 pm 01/10/2013

    IMO, academician scientists each build their careers attempting to advance some field of studies while collectively they work to prevent the solution of those problems.

    Schedule pressures? If the income of academic institutions were directly dependent on the continual solution of critical problems as most often occurs in the world of business, there’d be much greater pressure on academician scientists to produce solutions to the fundamental problems science.

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  2. 2. Sciencefirstandforemost 8:00 pm 01/10/2013

    ” We need to relocate science from its isolation and foster its growth in the mainstream of society as an ongoing authentic collaboration between the public and professionals. How can we possibly do this?”

    Huh? I don’t know any geologists from my graduating class who are in academia. They all do research, exploration, etc. outside of ‘the ivory tower’. Same as the vast majority of engineers, chemists, etc. Many biologists work in the food and health industries.the weapons/areospace industry is full of scientists. My wife works as a researcher in a private sector bio-engineering lab.

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  3. 3. engineer.sci 5:18 am 01/11/2013

    The concept of citizen science is intriguing, but at first paradoxical, until understood in the broader context of the crowdsourcing for general problem solving (please refer to Wikipedia on the detailed specifics of this approach).

    Essentially, while the vast majority cannot provide analysis of a statistically useful nature, the sheer mass of anecdotal information turns up both statistical relationships, and more importantly, a continuum of interconnections across various disciplines, and personal approaches from unique life experiences. The result is a vast brain if one thinks about it — and when connections gel… Well, within the sciences themselves, take the examples of anecdotal deviations from linear theory over many years — in engineering, economics, etc. that eventually sparked the analysis it took to give birth to Chaos Theory.

    In nature itself we see this in the evolutionary step of altruism — from the atomic and molecular systems, to bacterial megacolonies, to insect swarms, fish schools, bird flocks, and mammalian herds/packs. This grouping in a “one for all, and all for one sense,” accords with the human sense of love. That is, love in its broad and noble, rather than its immediate sentimental and sensually selfish aspects.

    I think that the final human evolution must engage this natural tendency towards unification that we already see in our growing global interdependence. The key will be mutual concern and responsibility.

    Can we begin to imagine the creative and solving power of a differentiated and vast mind that will makes up all of Humanity?

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  4. 4. tauttayn 1:10 am 01/12/2013

    not sure if “co-creation” of knowledge happens with all citizen science projects. some cases, citizens collect data for the academics who use collected data to make conclusions in their own way, without citizens having a say in how it is interpreted

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  5. 5. CPO_Ryback 10:30 am 01/13/2013

    Madam, to be correct, the “Forbes” item was citing another publication. It was not original to “Forbes.”

    And about “stress” — the USA is still not yet North Korea, despite the best of efforts of WashDC to make it so.

    Anyone going into a job-field should be adult enough to take responsibility for the problems that can result.

    If academia, especially taxpayer-funded, is too “stressful” — leave. Quit. Go somewhere else. Your sacrifice is not required. Look out for No. 1, yourself. Thanks.

    BTW: Einstein did his first great work outside academia. While working as a patent examiner in Germany.

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