Citizen Science & the Revolution, Part 2

mv Namao, Lake Winnipeg

Last post, I discussed a model of citizen science whereby lay persons can have fun and help the environmental cause at the same time by volunteering to gather data for professional scientists. Now let’s consider a much deeper citizen-science alliance, one with profound political implications for the modern democracy. The true power of citizen science may not be so much about who gathers data, but rather who controls data. Revolutionary? You decide.

A fine symbol of this brave new citizen science is pictured above — the Canadian research ship Namao is just steaming into the Saskatchewan River after a long day of science on Lake Winnipeg, the world’s tenth-largest lake and one of the most threatened aquatic ecosystems anywhere. Namao is the only dedicated lake research vessel in Canada outside the Great Lakes.

Unlike so many scientific tools, the ship is owned and operated not by government but by a citizen’s group called the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium. To be clear: there are no volunteers or lay-persons working aboard the ship. All are professional scientists. The key is that these professionals are working directly for the people who live on the shores of the lake; some of the scientists live on the lakeshore. Collectively, they are citizens who decided to take action. No single agenda guides their work save for stewardship of the lake itself, their lake.

I first got to cruise aboard Namao nearly five years ago and wrote a story for Canadian Geographic magazine about how the people were doing what their governments could not, would not do to save a very troubled lake. An expanded, updated version of the story later formed a chapter in my Lakeland book, and I will continue to follow the story here. It is a good story, all in all.

You cannot effect environmental change without good data. Even with mountains of it (think “climate change”) politicking is tough. Despite paltry funding and many challenges, the LWRC has managed to produce compelling data about what is happening to Lake Winnipeg, quite a contrast with the 30-year data drought that came before, a period in which the federal government spent not a single research nickel on a lake nearly the size of Lake Ontario. Citizen-derived data now shapes public policy over a large piece of the biosphere. To put it another way, citizen science put Lake Winnipeg on the political map.

To glimpse the promise of citizen science, you first have to understand the shortcomings of science as it is more commonly deployed in society. To scientists reading this, understand that I am not criticizing you as individuals. On the contrary, as individuals, you are our greatest champions of nature. Rather, it is the administrative boxes we put you in that are the problem. There are three main boxes: government, universities and that amorphous catchall known as the private sector.

In most modern democracies, Canada included, the basic science of protecting the environment is a governmental duty. Whether the government does its duty is another matter. It is perennially easy to cut funding to conservation science, which by definition seeks to preserve equilibrium in nature — not a very sexy way to win votes at election time compared to job creation schemes, mega-projects. Liability is another issue. If a government department has not studied a particular problem, whether it is nutrient build-up in a lake, the impact of all-terrain-vehicle use, or what have you, it can’t be held liable for that problem. Even when it gets done, much government research is squirreled away, out of sight from the public. The influence of government environmental departments which exploded onto the scene in developed nations in the 1960s have shrunk steadily ever since.

More than anything it is the mercurial, four- or five-year mentality of elected government that interferes with good conservation science, something which demands consistency over the long term. It is hard to preserve a constant data stream while being buffeted every half decade by the sideways currents of ideology.

As Dr. Peter Kaveira, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy puts it: “When I worked as a scientist for the federal government, I published ideas and analyses that did eventually get used, but typically only after years and years of bureaucracy and agency angst.”

Universities are equally unsuited to playing guardian to the biosphere, but for different reasons. Schools are venues for training and innovation, not stewardship. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), which funds about 40,000 university researchers in Canada, has a mandate to spawn innovation and build scientific capacity, not to save polar bears or the tall grass prairie per se. NSERC is typical of university research funding everywhere.

Nor can universities be relied upon for data continuity over the long term. There are individual researchers who care deeply about conservation, who manage to scrape together funding to study some aspect of it, and who devote enormous energy to addressing some issue or other, who become politicized in the process. Sooner or later, though, most move on to other studies. Even those who carry a torch for an entire career one day retire. Maybe some next-generation tyro will take up their mantle, find the old data and dust it off, review the conclusions in some journal back-issue and renew study. And maybe not.

University science often reveals obvious policy directions for ecosystem protection — which are systematically ignored. When I first wrote about Lake Winnipeg, its nutrient overload problem seemed like a new discovery, one that surely would be rectified. Sad to say, it was just a repeat of the same problem that had been ignored on the Great Lakes three decades earlier. Then one day I had a conversation with a retired lake scientist, Dr. Ted Hammer, who had been awarded a Ph.D in 1963 for his work on nutrient overload. Hammer’s thesis advisor in turn had worked on this problem 20 years earlier, and he had gotten curious it after reading a nineteenth century paper about pollution in ocean harbors. I am sure the science of nutrient overload has advanced with each of these iterations. But the basic solution to the problem was known — and ignored — for century.

The Nature Conservancy’s Dr. Peter Kaveira again: “When I was an academic scientist, I routinely published articles that ended by claiming that ‘this result could be useful…’ In fact, my findings and ideas rarely were used.”

In the last scientific box, the private sector, we have the science of corporate profit, of innovation in a competitive marketplace, of proprietary technology and patents. There is little room for basic stewardship in that milieu.

But not so fast . . . The private sector box also contains a host of non-profits with a naturalist, conservationist mandate. The Nature Conservancy, whose chief scientist I have quoted twice, is a household brand, along with the World Wildlife Fund. Here in North America, Ducks Unlimited and the Sierra Club are other well known examples. Many such groups put science at the top of their spending priority list, employ many scientists directly, and strive to link scientific discovery with immediate action.

Such organizations are our highest-profile examples of citizen science, and I am glad they exist. But their unwieldy size and ambitious reach are problematic. The Nature Conservancy is the largest non-profit in America, with annual revenues over a billion dollars, assets of five-billion plus. WWF is likewise a sprawling worldwide bureaucracy. Even so, the challenges they tackle are orders of magnitude larger. These big green titans are spread thin, fighting campaigns in scores of countries simultaneously. They champion the most difficult cases. They can’t afford to fight small battles.

In the final installment, I want to step off into the unknown, to hypothesize about a much broader, back-yard citizen science network that could exist, that must exist if we are to achieve a sustainable role in the biosphere.


Learn about the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium and the issues confronting the world’s tenth-largest lake:

For the full text of Dr. Peter Kaveira’s piece on the role of science at the Nature Conservancy:

Conservation Science at The Nature Conservancy – Leading with Science

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