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.”
by Peter Colohan (he’s awesome!), Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, April 19, 2013
Ever wonder where the Weather Channel gets its data? Where the satellite images for Google Earth come from? These data and much more come from a complex array of satellites, ocean buoys, stream gauges, human surveys, and other platforms for collecting what the scientific community calls Earth observations. These data are used every day to protect life and property and answer key questions about our planet.Today, the Obama Administration’s National Science and Technology Council released a National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations—a framework for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the Nation’s Earth-observation enterprise. Currently, 11 Federal departments and agencies engage in Earth observation activities, collecting volumes of important data about the Earth on an ongoing basis, using an array of sophisticated tools and systems. The new Strategy outlines a process for evaluating and prioritizing Earth-observation investments according to their value to society in critical areas such as agriculture, global change, disasters, water resources, and weather.Each year, the U.S. Government invests significant resources in Earth-observations systems to collect data about Earth’s land, oceans, ecosystems, and atmosphere. Together, these systems take the pulse of our planet, providing critical Earth-system data that scientists and analysts can then turn into usable information about climate and weather, disaster events, land-use changes, ecosystem health, natural resources, and more. Ultimately, information and services derived from Earth-observation data—including some as ubiquitous as weather forecasts and GPS-navigation—are used by policy makers, resource managers, business leaders, first-responders, and citizens to make important day-to-day decisions.But as the Nation’s Earth-observation capacity has grown, so has the complexity of the Earth-observation endeavor. The demand for data, the complexity of the tools required to collect those data, and the sheer amount of data being collected, all are increasing. The National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations aims to help Federal agencies face these challenges by better-organizing existing Earth-observation systems and information, and coordinating plans for future projects. In support of the Obama Administration’s Open Data Initiatives, this Strategy also provides specific guidance on how agencies can make these Earth observations more open and accessible to the public.Going forward, the Strategy will be used as a basis to inform a broad National Plan for Civil Earth Observations—a blueprint for future investments in US Earth-observing systems, including agency roles and responsibilities, and creative solutions to challenges related to maintaining the Nation’s Earth-observing systems. It will also reinforce the United States’ ongoing commitment to work with international partners through the multi-national Group on Earth Observations GEO.The Strategy released today provides an evidence-based framework for routine assessment and planning across the entire family of Federal agencies engaged in Earth observations. It will help agencies compare notes, prioritize activities, and improve the quality of data about the planet—with the ultimate goal of meeting society’s most pressing data and information needs. Read the Strategy here.Learn more about global Earth-observation efforts here.Peter Colohan is a Senior Policy Analyst at OSTP
Tuesday, March 05, 2013 The Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) urges national investment in a comprehensive, updated flood map inventory for every community in the US. This will drive down costs and suffering from flooding on our nation and its citizens, as well as providing the best tool for managing flood risk and building sustainable communities.
For full text and to download a copy of the report, visit The Association of State Floodplain Managers | ASFPM.
- More Resources on Floods – from ASFPM (recoverydiva.com)
by Dina Spector, Business Insider, Feb 11, 2013
The eighth satellite in NASA’s Earth-watching Landsat fleet will launch Monday, Feb. 11 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California…. The joint program between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey is the longest-running data record of Earth observations from space. …The Landsat program enables scientists to track major changes of Earth’s surface, including melting glaciers, urban explosion and the effects of natural disasters.
Read more from Business Insider NASA’s Landsat Data Continuity Mission Launch – Business Insider.
For the latest Landsat news go to it’s NASA mission page here.
- Landsat Data Continuity Mission Awaits Liftoff (spacedaily.com)
Geoplace.com, July 9, 2012
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) injected a bit of life into its aging Landsat 5 satellite, which has orbited Earth more than 150,000 times since its launch in 1984 and has been experiencing problems with its thematic mapper (TM) instrument. Engineers have been able to power-on a long-dormant data-collection instrument aboard the satellite—the multispectral scanner (MSS), which has been offline for more than a decade. USGS now is acquiring MSS data over the United States only. The news is significant, because USGS continues to work toward launch of an eighth Landsat satellite, meaning that data from current Landsat craft still are key to Earth-observing operations. Landsat 7, activated in 1999, continues to collect images worldwide. But, in 2003, Landsat 7 experienced a hardware failure that caused a 22-percent loss of data in every image. Meanwhile, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM or Landsat 8), is scheduled for launch in January 2013.
For full text of the article, visit USGS Keeps Landsat 5 Satellite Alive | Articles – Publishing Titles | GeoPlace.
by Economist, May 12, 2012
ON APRIL 8th Envisat, Europe’s largest Earth-observing satellite, unexpectedly stopped talking to its users on the Earth below. Since then those users have been frantically trying to re-establish contact. They rely on Envisat’s radars and other sensors for a wide range of measurements, from the temperature of the oceans to the chemistry of the stratosphere. Scientists have used it to gauge ocean conditions for shipping and to investigate earthquakes; its data have been the basis of thousands of scientific papers.
For full text of the article, visit Earth-observation satellites: Something to watch over us | The Economist.
- Satellite observes rapid ice shelf disintegration in Antarctic (naturenplanet.com)
- ESA’s Ailing Envisat Imaged by Another Earth Orbiting Satellite (universetoday.com)
- Legendary Earth-Observing Satellite Goes Silent (news.discovery.com)
- Op-Ed Contributor: Earth-Observing Satellites in Jeopardy (nytimes.com)
- Researchers Unable to Revive Europe’s Envisat (news.sciencemag.org)
by Andrew Freedman, Climate Central, May 8, 2012
A “near-perfect storm” of factors has contributed to a rapid decline in America’s Earth observation capabilities, as long-running satellite missions end and new ones struggle to get off the ground, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC). If recent trends continue, there could be major ramifications in the form of less accurate weather and climate forecasts, as well as blind spots in monitoring a wide range of natural hazards. … During just the next eight years, U.S. Earth observation capabilities are likely to decline to roughly 25 percent of current levels, Hartmann said.
For full text of the article, visit Weather, Climate Forecasts Imperiled as Programs Cut | Climate Central.
- WPost Wants Earth Observation Satellites to Get More Political Attention (geodatapolicy.wordpress.com)
- U.S. In Danger of Losing Earth-Observing Satellite Capability (science.slashdot.org)
- Report warns of weather satellites’ ‘rapid decline’ (usatoday.com)