Monday, October 5, 2015

White House citizen Science Toolkit - A Former Fed's Thoughts (Part 1)


Photo Courtesy: White House on Flickr
Last week was an important one for Citizen Science.  On Wednesday, the White House held a large “Open Science and Innovation” forum highlighting the promise of citizen science and outlining ways Federal agencies can take advantage of this growing movement.  It was hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a hugely influential body overseeing the efforts of such agencies as the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health.  As a former Policy Officer at NIH who used to implement many of these initiatives, believe me when I say that OSTP initiatives are taken very seriously.

It’s important to say up front that none of this happened on its own.  The citizen science community has been building its reputation and reach for years to the point where it can stand tall at the national level.  And the government has not been ignoring citizen science up to now; they have highlighted it at previous events, discussed citizen science at White House Science Fairs, and have been discussion open innovation and crowdsourcing in a variety of initiatives (including ongoing Open Government Initiative).  So there are both many people to thank as well a strong foundation to build on.

Much of the attention from this event has gone to the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit toolkit.  It’s quite large and frankly much more complete that can often be expected from these types of events.  To start, I recommend taking a look at the various case studies presented on various projects designed by, or in coordination with, government agencies.  These are models that can be reproduced by other State/Federal agencies or can be developed by citizen scientists to help those agencies.  It’s also a great place to draw inspiration for future projects.  But that is just the first step.  Starting up a new citizen science program, either privately or in the government, involves many moving parts and a lot of key decisions.  So the toolkit also provides a long listing of resources that practitioners can use to start and grow their projects.  There is no way to highlight them all but I do recommend browsing through them for any insights that will help improve your own work.
As a former Fed who has dealt with many of these Open Innovation/Open Government issues before, what really interests me is the memo put out by OMB (the government’s management arm) on “Addressing Societal and Scientific Challenges through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing”.  This is what actually pushes agencies to include more citizen science in their programs and future budget requests, putting dollars behind the top-down push.  But it also brings up a number of questions for me.

One key element is creation of an online catalog of citizen science and crowdsourcing projects to help the public discover them.  This is a laudable goal and on the surface seems like a no-brainer.  But I question the real-world practicality of this approach.   To begin with, the number of Federally-funded citizen science projects is quite small compared to the total number of projects available (both nationally and internationally).  So to create a highly visible database showcasing a minority of projects can cause non-Federal projects to be overshadowed and less able to attract participants.  As a community the SciStarter database has become the go-to site for this type of information; highlighting projects regardless of funding source.  At the very least I hope the Federal solution is able to partner with SciStarter so their efforts are complementary instead of working against each other.

There are also questions with the real-world usefulness of this web site to remain current.  In many cases these types of government catalogs rely on manual entries made by employees from numerous different agencies and bureaus, all with different definitions of what citizen science is and with different amounts of time/energy devoted to populating the database.  Unless it is made a high priority for agencies (which is easier said than done) the database quickly lose relevance as the project data grows increasingly out-of-date.

Second, I question the concept of it functioning as a real-world way for people to find participation opportunities.  For many years the government has operated the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (www.CFDA.gov)  highlighting every grant program available to the public.  It is supposed to help people find programs (and funding support) that meets their needs.  But in reality I don’t think anybody uses it that way.  Most of the CFDA programs are broad, vague listings that each cover a wide swath of opportunities.  As an example NIH has less than 50 active programs listed under the CFDA system…but this is a tiny number for an agency spending $30 billion per year on grants.  At that high level the CFDA listing can barely capture the specifics needed to inform people about the individual programs currently available. Instead, people looking for grant funds can just go to Grants.gov which lists every Funding Opportunity Announcement across the government with detailed, complete information on each.  So I fear the Citizen Science database may just be like the CFDA listing and not provide nearly as much value as is hoped.

A thid issue I see was not addressed by the memo but can quickly come into play with Federally-funded citizen science projects.  A relatively unknown law called the “Shelby Amendment” requires that any Federally-funded research findings used to inform any regulatory action be made publicly accessible through FOIA.  Although a laudable goal, the implementation of this on the citizen science community may cause problems.  As we know, many citizen scientists get into the field to help preserve the environment and so a large number of citizen science projects look at ecological questions.  So if this research is funded by the government, and if the data is ever used to support a future regulation, all of the research data is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  But is this burden appropriate for citizen science?  The law was designed to cover university and agency researchers who can easily comply with the requirement.  Citizen scientists, on the other hand,  may have much more difficulty with those costs.  It is also highly intrusive for what may be a small citizen science project that gets caught up in politically-sensitive research.  So we need to really think about how these types of Open Government/Open Access requirements impact us.

Finally, but most importantly, a key agency action under the OMB memo is to diversify project by creating mechanisms for providing small grants to individuals and communities that may not be affiliated with universities or traditional government contractors.  As we just saw above the FOIA requirements can be overwhelming to small projects.  But what about all of the other administrative requirements necessary to operate a Federal grant?  That’s a huge issue and a problem that can’t be ignored, but it’s too big for just one blog post.  So I’m going to keep putting together my thoughts and write more on this issue in the near future.  

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?  Anything you find particularly beneficial, or particularly troublesome? Send me an email (OpenScientist - at - gmail.com) or let me know in the comments below.
 

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