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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

July 24, 2012

Citizen Science Army Marches

The Academy recently launched a new citizen science initiative, which seeks to advance our understanding of California biodiversity and address conservation, restoration, and protection needs. Leveraging the enthusiasm and power of a volunteer corps, the Academy is participating in two pilot projects: 1) partnering with the Marin Municipal Water District to survey the biodiversity of Mt. Tamalpais to inform management practices, and 2) partnering with the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to document the marine ecosystem at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Learn more on our Citizen Science page.

I’ve included below an op-ed piece from the Marin Independent Journal published a few months ago celebrating citizen science—which was, in fact, the first science.

Citizen Science Brings Passion about the Natural World Back into Our Lives
By Jaimie Baxter

Where would the scientific world be today without the contributions of Galileo or Charles Darwin?

Alice Eastwood (photo: USGS)

Locally speaking, how much of Marin’s natural history would be known were it not for Alice Eastwood? According to contemporary thought, these prominent contributors to our knowledge of natural processes and scientific theory were not scientists by training, but ordinary members of society with an inexorable curiosity in solving riddles of the natural world.

Charles Darwin’s early fascination with the natural world distracted him from his medical education. In spite of this, Darwin followed his passion to publish Origin of Species, a creation that is considered one of the most influential works to scientific and evolutionary theory in all of history.

Alice Eastwood, a teacher and self-taught botanist, contributed invaluable botanical knowledge of Marin flora to Marin County and its scientific community. Her countless collections are housed at the California Academy of Sciences to this day.

These examples showcase the pursuit of scientific study by lay citizens who kept journals, collected specimens and wrote papers about their discoveries. This type of observation-based inquiry and contribution to our collective scientific knowledge waned in the mid-20th century as science became the domain of professional researchers who were employed by governmental institutions and universities.

Alas, the dominant academic discourse of the 21st century remains entrenched in the idea that the collection of scientific data is only valid if performed by professionally trained experts.

But recently, a movement that emphasizes uniting public involvement with scientifically sound practices is beginning to blossom. This movement is called citizen science and it has the many benefits of modern technology. Indeed, technology may well be the main driving force of recent explosions of citizen science activity. It provides access to expansive populations of people, and these large volunteer networks allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means.

Many of us are merely one step away from becoming citizen scientists. By taking advantage of mobile applications, we have the ability to record data while hiking on our favorite trail, gardening in our backyards, or wandering a portion of the Pacific coast.

Not all “apps” record data, but questions can be posted to the web with answers provided in a matter of minutes. Some examples of these mobile applications and data recorders are Nature’s Notebook, Project Budburst, Calflora’s Observer, SciSpy, eBird, iNaturalist, LeafSnap, NestWatch, WildLab, Project Squirrel and the Great Sunflower Project.

Local forms of citizen science exist in Marin as well. For example, this year the Marin Municipal Water District, in celebration of the district’s 100th anniversary, has teamed up with the California Academy of Sciences to carry out multiple bioblitzes to capture a snapshot of the flora of Mt. Tamalpais. Another local land management agency, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is piloting the California Phenology Project which tracks seasonal changes of designated plant species in the Presidio and Marin Headlands.

In addition, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory recruits citizen scientists for their annual
Christmas Bird Count from mid-December to early January.

Jaimie Baxter is an Americorps member with the Conservation Corps North Bay and a restoration and ecosystem management intern with the Marin Municipal Water District.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 10:58 am

July 16, 2012

New Technology Announced: The Faucet


Did You Know

Disposable plastic water bottles add greatly to marine and terrestrial pollution. They simply are a waste of resources. Importing water all the way from Fiji? Nuts.

In partnership with GlobalTap and the City of San Francisco, the Academy has installed a GlobalTap refilling station near the roof elevators on the public floor. Standard water fountains, unfortunately, make it awkward to refill reusable water bottles, while the GlobalTap station is designed specifically to make this easy. The installation also features an electronic counter, which records and displays the cumulative reduction in the number of disposable bottles used, as well as information about the various environmental and social costs of using disposable plastic bottles. The overall goal is to encourage visitors to bring and use their own bottles, and to show them their contribution to the overall reduction in plastic pollution.

Note for new users: Faucets are really easy to use. Don’t hold back. Just turn the handle or press the lever and water will come out the spout. It’s simple. It’s fun for the whole family. It’s easier than cracking the cap on a plastic bottle of water. You may make it a habit. Get to know a faucet near you. Most modern homes have them.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:51 pm

July 10, 2012

A Study of Public Trust in Science


Earth Day conversation in the piazza

The Academy is based on science. The extent to which the general public trusts science (a word with many meanings) is important to us.

To that point, Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the author of the paper “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010,” which appeared in the American Sociological Review a few months ago. It stirred up quite a bit of controversy and received a great deal of press. Just Google “Gordon Gauchat” and you can occupy your time for as long as you have the patience.

Scientific study and the conclusions that come from it don’t make for a cozy universe with comforting meaning for all. Where some celebrate the wonder and awe that come from doing science, others may feel a chill and loneliness and instinctively move toward the warm glow of other hearths.

A lot of the challenge in talking about science has to do with the issue of what constitutes “common sense.” Public figures frequently call on us to celebrate the appeal of “common sense,” as if they are reminding their listeners of the obvious value of what their mothers tried to teach them in the kitchen. Appeals to mother are powerful. Father, too, but for many mother has the edge, at least in my experience.

If we take the meaning of “common sense” to be what we experience in our daily lives, then much of what science talks about might as well be on a distant planet. Just think about atoms, molecules, and DNA strands—not to mention muons, neutrinos, and quarks. When is the last time you saw an atom? How about a quark? They may be common, but they sure don’t make sense to everyone. The job is not simple at all when it’s your business to deliberately challenge, in the pursuit of “truth,” what makes common sense to most people and provides them comfort and predictability in their lives. After all, looking out my window, the earth looks pretty flat to me. It’s just common sense.

If we here at the Academy are bound together in the belief that science matters—and that its conclusions matter—then statistics of the sort reported by Gauchat are important. They are helpful in thinking about what we do and how we can do it more effectively.

You might want to read Gauchat’s paper. Here is a link to it. Go ahead and plunge in. I did. http://www.asanet.org/images/journals/docs/pdf/asr/Apr12ASRFeature.pdf

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 6:02 pm

July 3, 2012

Highly Recommended Summer Reading


The Swerve

Here is a great book for summertime reading: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. It reads like a detective story yet deals with major issues in the history of scientific thinking. I’m in the middle of it at the moment.

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, The Swerve recounts the discovery of an ancient Roman manuscript 600 years ago – a discovery that influenced Boticelli, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Shakespeare, Jefferson, and others.

Here is an article – you might say a very compact Cliff’s Notes version of The Swerve – by the author that appeared in The New Yorker last year. You should think of it as an enticement to read the full book, not a substitute!

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 10:01 am

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