Monday, June 9, 2014

Where Are the Best Places for a Citizen Scientist to Live? - Key Traits

Much of this blog has been about large, national and international scope citizen science projects.  But that only scratches the surface of what's available.  In fact the large number of citizen science projects happen at the local state parks, community colleges, and local high schools.  So we can't ignore all those great opportunities.  But what happens if you don't live somewhere with a lot of citizen science projects?  Are there places you can move to and  get more involved?  Let's find out.

There are many places we can go to find information bout each US city and which will rank them by the criteria we want.  Sites like Find Your Spot come to mind where you fill out a number of personality questions and receive a list of likely places.  But what criteria should we use?  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Access to Universities and Community Colleges: There is nothing like a nearby institution of higher learning to cultivate to inspire a passion for research.  Many universities are built around research and have a world of resources available for everyday people if you ask nicely enough.  But even if their tools are locked up tight, the opportunity to learn about advanced topics through seminars and open campus days often available, and many professors plain love to talk to local residents about their labs.  It's their favorite subject! And those professors are often the same ones who indulge their science passions further as citizen scientists in fields outside their day-to-day interests.  But most importantly, these research professors are the ones designing and managing citizen science projects for people in the community to join. 
  • Proximity to Museums and Science Centers: There is no better place to inspire everyday people to science like a local science museum.  They explain complicated topics in ways that everyday people can understand, and help relate it to their lives.  They also run programs that involve the local community, many of which are citizen science projects.  So finding a good science museum is another ticket to finding well-run projects. 
  • Access to National, State, and Local Parks: What better place is there to see hundreds of unique plants and animals than in the national parks set up to protect them?  Not only that, many of these parks are in places with significant geologic figures, or even scientific bounty (such as Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah).   And, as we've seen at universities and museums, there are many great local citizen science programs eager for volunteers.   
  • Dark Skies: For astronomy lovers nothing beats a deep, dark sky field for excellent star-gazing.  Whether it is a meteor shower, approaching comet, or bright planet everything is crisper on a clear night.  Experts typically recommend getting out at least an hour for major metropolitan areas to get the best views so rural areas typically get the best views.  But you'll know you're in a good spot once the Milky Way's dusty veil is clear even with a moon in the sky. 
  • Environmental Consciousness: Many of the most active citizen science projects are performed by people protecting natural resources.    In fact much of the field actually grew up from this community, where local citizen would test local waterways for contaminants or count the wildlife due to pollution concerns.  So an area with a high "green" contingent where the public is highly sensitive to environmental concerns will also be a great place to find interesting citizen science projects.
  • Entrepreneurship: Many of the key traits of citizen scientists are shared by successful entrepreneurs. Both are highly independent, dedicated, intellectual, and comfortable with risk. They are also willing to question authority and defy conventions.  These traits help you build a business from scratch or offer your data to tenured researchers as an equal. So citizen scientists will look for areas that welcome similar personalities as themselves and they fit right in.  As an added bonus, in an entrepreneurial city any scientific discoveries can be more easily turned into profitable businesses or used in other ways to make money.  A perfect way to motivate, and support, the citizen science community.
But these are just a few thoughts to get things rolling.  Are there other factors you can think when identifying areas supportive of citizen science?  Let me know in the comments below and I'll be happy to include them.

But where in the US are these places?  Tune in to next weeks post for a few answers.

(Updated 8/10/2014 to add Entrepreneurship as a sixth trait).