Mythbusting Citizen Science Roundup

Over where I hang my workday hat, recently we’ve thought a lot about the field of citizen science and how it’s developing. Specifically, the push from leaders and scholars in the field to “retake citizen science” by broadening the definition to include the many formulations of decentralized expertise present in our world in the quest for new knowledge.

As part of that ‘re-taking’, I’ve taken on some of the major stereotypes about citizen science and volunteers. I hope to take on more, and would appreciate suggestions, Mythbusters-style, of stereotypes to investigate. But for now, here’s a roundup of the perceptions thus far:

Participation is Empowering: the verdict is still out Read More

The Invisible Disability: The diabetic academic manifesto

Whenever I fill out a job application, there are those little demographic questions at the end and I’m always a bit stymied. They ask if I have a disability that should be taken into account. I don’t, but in the world of academia I feel like I should say yes. I’m diabetic, and post-PhD it’s starting to become a tangible hindrance for the first time in my life.

Ever the optimist, I tend to dismiss the cases in which the fact that I have a chronic disease directs my decisions. But lately, the cases have piled up to the point I need a cathartic moment to vent. And while a personal subject, I hope my thoughts can be either enlightening or instructive to those thinking about personal health in the ivory tower. Because that’s part of the problem – something held close because it’s personal keeps the issue out of public discourse, which is precisely where solutions might someday emerge.

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A Primer on Ethics in the Human Dimensions of Conservation

Think about the word ‘ethics’ for a moment. For some, the word creates images of smiling people sitting around a table, the picture of diversity, happily planning a future in which no one is ever taken advantage of. For others, the image may be of nun-like ascetics peering over your shoulder with an armful of paperwork tied together with a pretty bow of red tape. For still others, it’s something heartily discussed in a liberal arts course or late-night dorm philosophizing during doe-eyed college days. In reality, though, practicing ethics is never as clear-cut an image and making ethics part of daily research life is still a distant goal.

Some fields, like genetics and medicine, have had to confront ethical conundrums head-on and consequently, create a precedent for how we think about ethics in a research and institutional context. Sadly, this precedent is full of angry conflict, covering ethical missteps after-the-fact, and millions of dollars worth of lawsuits. This precedent rightfully leaves many people jumpy about addressing ethics head-on, like the proverbial third-rail of program management that no one dare touch for fear of inviting the flak created in these precedent cases. To use another cliched analogy, ethics then becomes the elephant in the room, except this elephant is staring at you over your cubicle wall and periodically sticking its trunk over the wall to search for peanuts. In reality, choosing to not address ethics amounts to consciously deciding to accept whatever emerges organically, whether you like it or not. So what does this mean for less life-or-death fields that work with stakeholders, like the marine sciences? Let’s start with the foundation that’s already laid.

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Farming Salmon in Hiddenfjord, Faroe Islands

amysquareIf you treat yourself to a salmon dinner in Manhattan, that delicious fish most likely came from the Faroe Islands. Should you be scratching your head and trying to remember your geography, you’re not alone. Yet, this tiny country in the North Atlantic is one of the world leaders in salmon aquaculture. While in the Faroes, I had the good fortune  of a tour of a site run by the company Hiddenfjord in the town of Vestmanna by Jogvan Egholm. Since aquaculture is still a new and developing field, it’s always nice to see how things are done. Once I learned of the market connections to the US, however, I began to consider the tour the story of our food as well.

Salmon happily jumping for food in their pen. Soon to be on a plate near you. Credit: Andrew Thaler

Salmon happily jumping for food in their pen. Soon to be on a plate near you. Credit: Andrew Thaler

The salmon we visited  were destined for the US and China, countries with the best market price. Recently, we’ve had salmon on the brain after a controversial taste-test by the Washington Post revealed testers preferred frozen, farmed salmon. Bottom line of the controversy: understand where your fish come from and the environmental and health implications of certain production styles. Not all farming is created equal – Europe does a much better job using salmon from their native range than us westerners. So here’s a story of a fish. After fully grown in the Faroes, they’ll be shipped to the UK by boat and flown the rest of the way by plane. Smaller fish stay in the European market. But it starts with an egg…

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Institutional Ethics for Research in a New Academy

amysquareI’ll be around Morehead City this year for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, finally with some post-dissertation time on my hands – and decided to finish a project looking at shifting baselines. Part of this investigation is to find out what people think about trends in the tournament since its creation in 1957 – fish size, difficulty in catching one, etc. It’s a small project involving a one-page survey but I decided that since ethics are important, I would run the survey through an institutional review board anyway.

Problem is, since I am post-dissertation and this is an independent project, I no longer fit into any of the categories of people who should be reviewed by my institution’s IRB: student, faculty, research staff, or administrator. I’ve heard this complaint from other community groups hoping to deploy surveys or get volunteers to evaluate their experiences in citizen science, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it firsthand. So if one does desire ethical oversight outside of an academic institution, where does one turn? I have a few thoughts, not of them tested, but I’d like to see the world of ethics expand beyond its institutional boundaries to match the expanding scientific boundaries of public science.

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I’m a scientist. A social scientist. Please opine on the validity of my discipline.

amysquareI was incredibly disheartened to find a link to a blog post questioning, yet again, whether social science counts as science, this time by John Horgan at Scientific American. I’ve taken on the myths surrounding my career before, and quite frankly I’m getting sick of it. So this time, I’m going to pick myself up off the floor of frustration and hopefully help move the discussion beyond the same uninformed stereotypes we’ve all heard a million times before. Taken to the extreme, I feel as inaccurately portrayed as the scientist with crazy hair and colored test tubes.

Before I delve into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to tackle the definition of science. There are a number of mostly narrow definitions out there. The one I ascribe to is evidence-based. The research I do is theoretically-grounded, connects research methods to that theory, makes observations using those methods, and then draws conclusions based on that evidence. While this may sound general, science is a broad approach that rapidly sub-divides by discipline and philosophy from there. Now to the less philosophical part…

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Advice I Took For Granted For Grad School

amysquareOver dinner one cold winter night my last year as an undergraduate, my advisor casually mentioned that unless I was offered a stipend, it wasn’t really an acceptance into graduate school. This was specific to my case to a certain degree – looking for a PhD program in the environmental sciences – but his words stayed with me. When it came time to choose schools, the 5 years of funding Duke offered me made a large part of my decision as to which graduate school I attended.

In a world where PhD students begin bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but often graduate unemployed, I’ve come to reflect upon this advice a bit more. I’ve had 5 years of support, essentially as an employee, and am now on my own to find my path in the world. But I didn’t saddle debt for my graduate education and could choose to parlay many of the skills learned (writing, teaching, project management) to any other career, should I choose. Compare this to other students, who saddle enormous debt for a master’s or doctorate expecting that this guarantees them a job able to pay off that debt. Thank goodness I listened over ziti that night. Read More

Know Your Fishermen as well as your Farmer

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their shar, photo by author

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their share, photo by author

amysquareFisheries had their ups and downs in the US in 2012. We’ve all heard the stories of overfishing, but there were also a few glimmers of hope as the New England cod fishery proposed to open previously closed areas, the Chesapeake oysters showed slight recovery, and MSC certification expanded and became more popular. News on the social side of the fishery – the fishermen and their families – is not as prevalent outside the small towns where they live. However, some of the most exciting developments happened on this front, starting with official community supported fisheries declaring themselves here to stay. They held a successful summit in New Hampshire this past July, placing them more in the public eye than ever before.

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How to Make A Pretty Map

Cartographers of old produced maps that now hang in art galleries, living rooms, and libraries. They were works of art, embellished with the cartographer’s personality – from their handwriting to the fanciful borders of the page  and sometimes even sea creatures. Peruse for a moment this map of North Carolina (then part of the Virginia Colony) from 1636 – the ocean comes complete with ships and large toothy fish, the land depicts the western border of our country back then (the Appalachian mountains) and each tribal territory is nicely color-coded. The map not only gets its message across but says something about the mapmaker. Today’s cartography looks very different.

map from 1636 documenting tribal territories, courtesy of the NC Map Collection in the UNC library

Modern geographers are trained in geographic information systems, highly reliant on software and abundant data to make the required maps. GIS careers are in high demand from both sides – employer and employee – following the adage that a picture speaks 1000 words. Maps talk. But with this technological shift, much of the art is gone from cartography – but it doesn’t have to be. Read More

Ethics, Interdisciplinarity, and the Institutional Review Board

from batmancomic.info

Say your local Lions Club wants to hold a focus group to determine what the community thinks would be the best way to direct community service efforts? What if you, as a blog writer, want to survey your readership about their demographics? What if the local food group wants to stand in front of a grocery store surveying people where they get their food from? What if an independent scholar wants to interview people for their next book? These are all real-world applications of social science that may have significant positive impacts to the community involved. But are they responsible to anyone for ethical behavior? Should they be? If they were University scholars, they’d be subject Institutional Review Board oversight. No IRB approval means no publishing and no funding.

Even in the university setting, what if a scholar decides to cross disciplines and use some social science methods? Are they subject ot IRB review? Say fisheries biologists want to interview fishers about their knowledge of fish stocks and aggregations or an agricultural extension agent wants to survey local farmers where they get their seed? The what-if’s could go on forever. And they are all in the ethical grey area.

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