AAAS CEO Rush Holt on Citizen Science

White House Citizen Science Forum

September 30, 2015

AAAS CEO Rush Holt’s Remarks


Published with permission from AAAS. The video is available here, with Dr. Holt’s remarks running from 43:00-56:30 minutes. Photo source: Library of Congress.

“I’m at the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s premier general science membership organization, and our mission and goal includes integrating science into public policy, into legislation, into the branches of government, into education and culture and society. And citizen science connects directly to our mission and goals.

It’s interesting to note that citizen science is central to our founding. The AAAS was founded in 1848 when some disciplinary scientists got together and abolished their disciplinary societies so they could form a new society to advance science. The word “science” actually was relatively new to the general lexicon at that time, and they believed it was important to speak for science at large, the principles, the fundamentals, of science. And they elected as the first president of the AAAS, William Redfield who was a citizen scientist, who predated the Christmas Bird Count by half a century. You see, he had noticed after a storm went through New England, that trees in different locations were blown down in different directions. And he began to think that maybe storms were cyclonic in the circulation of winds. But of course, the conventional wisdom was that storms just blew through town, and blew in from one side and out the other. So he enlisted hundreds of people along the Atlantic coast and asked them to note when a storm came, at what time did the winds blow in what direction, and, if they had access to a barometer, what was the barometric pressure.

We now know, from every evening’s weathercast, that storms do circulate. And this citizen science activity established modern meteorology. Redfield was not a trained scientist, he was a steamship owner who had steamboats up and down the rivers, the Hudson River and so forth, in the early part of the 19th century. But he knew he could think like a scientist. And he could engage others to think like scientists. That’s the goal of AAAS. To see that society at large integrates science into the society, into the culture, into the policy.

So we certainly support crowdsourcing and citizen science. In our education programs we’ve developed something called “Active Explorer,” which is a smartphone app that’s available to kids to do citizen science—real science, and real education. We have programs to incorporate cooperative programs in the schools to look at meteorology around the world—consistent, I would say, with our founding. We have publicly endorsed the goals and the principles of Senator Coons’ legislation: the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act. Many of our members, of course, have taken part in these celebrated citizen science activities. Looking for gravitational lenses—some of you may know, these are the subtle signatures that you can observe when massive objects block a light source, but bend the light so you can see from Earth the light that would be obscured by those massive objects. Then you can deduce something about the masses of those objects. It requires some pattern recognition that humans are good at. Just as humans are used for typing galaxies, because you have to recognize forms and patterns, and humans do that well.

David Baker published an article in Science about protein folding. The way proteins that are in biological cells fold has a lot to do with how they function, and they try to arrange themselves in a low-energy state but there are lots of possibilities. And David Baker in an article in Science, and subsequently recognized by the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland prize, enlisted, I think, thousands of people, in looking at how the proteins might fold, to find novel foldings that could be important, at least for the understanding of biology, if not for human health.

Recently in Science Advances, the new AAAS open access journal—I recommend it to you by the way, fine journal, Science Advances, online, free to the user—we published an article about work that had been sponsored by the US Geological Survey, of how smartphones can be used in real time to detect and measure and categorize earthquakes. And in fact, it can be done in time to give warnings, because radio waves travel faster than seismic waves, you can then warn cities, of a coming earthquake. And it was a nice article, earlier this year.

We’ve followed all those things at AAAS, and care about them a lot. We hosted at the last annual meeting—by the way, David Baker, the protein biologist, spoke on this subject at our annual meeting—and we also hosted the first meeting of the Citizen Science Association, which is off to a good start now, and I urge you all to get involved in that. Because citizen science has all sorts of advantages. Labor that is distributed in space and time: many hands make light work. But in some cases, many perspectives make work possible. You can accomplish things that individuals cannot accomplish by having multiple points of view, multiple people practicing, contributing to the observations and the experiment.

And of course, it can be conducted without any limitation by region or race or age—it is democratic. Small ‘d’—I don’t want to get partisan here. It can speed discoveries, but actually make possible discoveries—and, by giving you large statistics, it makes it possible to do lots of cross-cutting statistical analysis that might be impossible if you have one researcher collecting data for one experiment.

It’s open. Now this is something that is essential to science. Open communication is one of the principal goals of the AAAS, or of scientists anywhere. The United States is open and democratic not just in our political system, but intellectually as well. We are, back to our foundings, rooted in the scientific way of thinking. Not just Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush, the acknowledged scientists. All of the founders were employing a scientific way of thinking: a reverence for evidence, and openness in communication. And I would argue that the benefits from citizen science—and by the way, citizen science doesn’t necessarily mean simply crowdsourcing. When I talked about William Redfield—yes, he was using crowdsourcing in the 1820s, but he was also a practitioner of open, democratic science.

And I think this points out what we stand to gain from the citizen science movement, even more than good scientific discoveries. What we stand to gain is what we badly need today: a reverence for evidence in our population and our policy-makers, an understanding of how science works, an ability to evaluate evidence on one’s own. Scientists, of course, have developed the ability to evaluate evidence. That’s what scientists do.

I think the American traditional ability to think like scientists has eroded somewhat. There are fundamental misunderstandings right now, widespread in our society, about vaccines and public health, about climate change, about evidence-based economics, about biological evolution. Our legislative, and policy, and public behavior suffer because the public forgets that they—ordinary people—have the ability, and I would argue the responsibility, to evaluate evidence. They think that science is for the scientists. Specially trained, esoteric scientists. Science is asking questions so they can be answered on the basis of evidence, that ideas can be communicated openly and somebody else can check your work.

Scientists develop a reverence for evidence; citizen scientists do too. And what they learn, and what they can communicate to their sisters and cousins and aunts, and their co-workers and everyone else, is that science is not just for the specialists. Science is accessible to all. It is essential that everyone practice this, at least to some extent, for the sake of our society and our policies. Thank you.”

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