Citizen Science, Engagement & the Changing Fells: A Chat with Brian Drayton (Pt. I)

Kacy Karlen for TERCtalks

I had the opportunity to sit down for a chat with Brian Drayton, Plant ecologist, linguist, resident polymath, and Co-Director of the Center of School Reform at TERC. Brian is co-PI on an array of projects including MSPnet, A Research + Practice Collaboratory, The Atlantic Partnership for the Biological Sciences and Biocomplexity and the Habitable Planet, and just published “Under the Microscope”, a white paper review of the research literature on biology labs from 1987-2007. With expertise in topics spanning scientific inquiry, ecology and life science, electronic communities, and citizen science, Brian shared his thoughts in response to Carolyn Johnson’s recent special interest piece for The Boston Globe (in which he was quoted). We talked about the changing local landscape of the Middlesex Fells, Drayton’s field-altering Master’s thesis, “Plant species lost in an isolated conservation area in Metropolitan Boston from 1894 to 1993”; the role of citizen science; the vanishing boundary between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ science; and bringing back the joy to science engagement.

Swamp Candles/ Lysimachia terrestris, a plant found in the Middlesex Fells. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

TERCtalks: Thanks for joining me, Brian. So let’s jump right in. From your perspective, what’s the distinction between ‘amateur’ science and ‘professional’ science?

Brian Drayton: I think that someone has probably written a book about this, but if not, someone should. There’s a lot in that question. It’s a question that bears on TERC’s work in many projects, not even just in regard to citizen science. I am thinking of work like Kids Network, Star Schools, Global Lab, Teacher Enhancement in Ecology and Pedagogy, MSPnet, and many others in which scientists are somehow involved in science education. People have written about the inherent power or status thing—often non-scientists project onto scientists a certain elitism or sense of superiority that—in my experience—most scientists don’t actually feel, or actively try to avoid.

There’s that, and there is the fact that everyone has something that occupies their full attention and time, and that’s what they’re expert at. There are cultural aspects inherent here that make it possible for one to become a good teacher, or an involved citizen, or a scientist. For scientists—the fundamental thing is that you’re contributing to new knowledge by producing a coherent explanation about phenomena that appeals to data.  As a scientist, you have to put out explications that anyone could observe by using your methods—so quality of data, reliability of measurement, and consistency of tools are crucial to your practice.

But I don’t like the tension between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’, because those are pretty arbitrary terms. Charles Darwin, Henry Cavendish, James Lovelock built labs, didn’t have appointments anywhere—semantically, they are ‘amateur’ scientists. The question really is: what standards are their scientific findings up to? Bryan Hamlin and his team are holding themselves to the standards that the scientific conversation requires, so the distinction is artificial—it doesn’t matter whether Hamlin is paid to do the work or not, or whether or not he holds a university appointment or not.

TT: Are there areas of field research that are inaccessible to citizen scientists? What are they?

BD: Objective data is the evidence you have to satisfy in science.  And the tools and methods you use are shaped by the question you are trying to answer. If you want to have an accurate picture as possible of what plant species occur in the Middlesex Fells; where they are; how abundant they are—you can use remote imaging, but the best way to collect information is being there—observing the plant. Or preserving it. So you need good walking shoes and a hand lens, at least. It’s certainly possible to acquire the kind of knowledge and implements necessary to identify things, locate things, map things, whether stars or plants—in one’s spare time. There are people who have been cataloguing bird species in their backyards for 48 years. They are laboring in obscurity or largely unknown in the world of scientific journals, but have vast storehouses of scientific knowledge.

In fact, this kind of scientific knowledge and field research is absolutely indispensable, and we’re actually suffering right now because it is not being done more. It sounds crass, but a lot of science is done in the span of a PhD study. So especially in field research, when checking out change over time, or birds, or bats in an area—it’s fabulous if there are people providing reliable information about these topics who are familiar with a local area and continuously visiting it, year after year.

On the other hand, even when visiting the Fells—species like the oak can produce swarms of hybrids. Your research question may require you to know whether you are observing red or black oaks. In these cases, DNA techniques are really important for taxonomy as it’s rare that field marks are descriptive enough. Every year, species are being re-described on the basis of new molecular data. So there are certain hybrids you can’t define without high-tech tools, and the use of said tools require specialized science training—in mathematics, in methods, in instruments, in technologies. For certain cutting-edge applications of science—you have to travel the whole length of science that people took to get there.

TT:  Thanks for clarifying. So can you describe your working relationship with Bryan Hamlin? You mentioned going out on walks with him?

BD: Bryan Hamlin contacted me in about the year 2000 or 2001, as he had been spending more and more time botanizing in the Fells. He started feeling like the data I had published just wasn’t extensive enough. He’s a very congenial guy and considerate—and he wanted to have a civilized conversation about the data, and that has been the relationship every since. When he and his colleagues started organizing this systematic study, they invited me to participate (I had moved to New Hampshire at that time and couldn’t work it in). But we stayed in touch, and caught up through the New England Botanical Club frequently—I shared my master’s thesis with him, and answered questions. We went out together trying to find plants, and had a very pleasant walk in the pouring rain. Even since the Globe story, we’ve exchanged a flurry of emails.

Topographical map of Middlesex Fells Reservation, 1895.  Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Topographical map of Middlesex Fells Reservation, 1895. Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

TT: So it seems like a collaboration between a field botanist and a published scientist.

BD: I have enjoyed the whole process because it has recapitulated several ways that science works that I’ve experienced over the course of my career. I had to work full time in grad school. I was looking for an interesting study to do as a Master’s thesis around the topic of scientific apprenticeship. I was living in Medford at time and heard of a study done on the flora of the Fells in the 1890s. I thought that doing a retrospective to test some basic assumptions as to how conservation should be done would be interesting—and my advisor Richard Primack didn’t really know of any similar work that had been done—so I plunged in, and then published in 1993.

Once my paper was published, I became familiar with groups in Singapore and New York state asking similar questions around well-known local flora. So the first thing is that there was a convergence in that kind of study—it was in the air. My paper got picked up by the New York Times, and has been cited in other papers. Primack continued doing work with other students looking at climate change based on local, historical trends with his students. Years later, Hamlin and his colleagues starting noticing different trends and he set out to put together a greater systematic study of the Fells.

So in one way, my original study was superceded by a better study—but on the other hand, the proliferation of an idea is what I love about science. As a scientist, you hope for a little credit, you may hope that you get your name on the study you did, but mostly—you hope that other people use your study. And eventually, you hope that your study gets used enough, and recombined, and that the field advances and that your work is no longer relevant, as it’s superceded by more current research.

Stay tuned for Part II of “Citizen Science, Engagement & the Changing Fells: A Chat with Brian Drayton” !

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