Monday, May 16, 2016

Sources of Citizen Science Funding (Part 1)

Photo Courtesy: FrankieLeon
Last year I set out to describe the many ways citizen science can provide economic value and earn money for citizen scientists to expand their efforts.  That effort continues, but it doesn't address the main CURRENT source of citizen science funding...the government.  So it's important to start looking at where it is coming from and where it is going.

The first place many people look is on the web site which hosts a searchable catalog of all Federal crowdsourcing and citizen science projects.  While this is a great resource for people looking for existing projects to join (and which I will also be writing about in the future), it's not a source for funding new ideas.  So we need to find a different strategy.

As a former Federal employee my next thought is to review all the grants and contracts awarded by Uncle Sam over the last four years.  All of this information is publicly available through the government's transparency website USASpending.  Not only does it provide funding agency, amount, and summary description, it also provides a lot of secondary information such as the type of organization receiving the funds, pricing terms, and option years.  But there have been long-standing data problems with the site; these are issues I worked with a lot in my former career and which I'm hoping to minimize during these analyses.  There are also just inherent problems of identifying something as a "Citizen Science" award when public participation is only part of the award, or when they are developing tools that may (or may not) be useful to citizen scientists for future work, or when they are simply using data first developed by citizen scientists.  So while there is much to learn it can't be considered a definitive source.

For those who wish to "play along at home", the data sets for this and related analyses are available online here (use the worksheet "All Contracts").

Findings and Discussion:
Although U.S. Federal government support for citizen science contract awards is very low, this is only a small slice of the potential support it could receive.  As both a new(-ish) field and a research area, citizen science is not well-suited for contractual support.  Under government rules, contracts are reserved for organizations providing goods or services directly to the government as part of  "acquisition".  This is different from grants and cooperative agreements which provide "assistance" to organizations doing work for the general benefit of society, but do not provide a direct benefit to the government.  This is like the difference between the government buying a pick-up truck for use by rangers in a national park, and supporting research on ways to improve pick-up truck fuel efficiency.  Both are good things for government to do, but only one benefits government directly.  So citizen science (much like other research endeavors) may receive much more funding through grants.  That will be the subject of a future blog post. 

Additionally, based on the data it would appear that nearly all these awards were openly competed, however, there is no information on the RFP or solicitation numbers associated with those competitions.  This is interesting information that I'd like to include so others may take advantage of it.  Unfortunately since that data is not here it will need to be pulled from another data source and will also be the subject of a future blog post.

Initial Results:
During this four-year period only a surprisingly small number of contracts were awarded to support citizen science; less than one million dollars per year.  And of those almost all of the money came from NASA for it's astronomy-based programs (including support for various Zooniverse projects like Disk Detective).  And the money went to teams of existing (professional) research teams at large research institutions, not to citizen scientists or to directly support work by individuals.  Instead the support was for more "systemic" programs that build up the field in general or use citizen science data.

In summary:
  • Approximately $3.6 million was awarded in either base or potential option years, for a total of approximately $900,000 per year.
  • There were 16 unique awards made (four per year) at an average size of , with an average size of approximately $240,000.
  • The primary funding agencies were:
    • NASA: 11 awards worth $3,491,802
    • Department of the Interior: 3 awards worth $27,196
    • EPA: 1 award worth $3,460
  • All but one award was made to a large research university/foundation or large non-profit organization.
  1. Perform Advanced Search at for all awards with permutations of the terms "Citizen Science", "Citizen Scientist", "PPSR", and "Public Participation in Scientific Research", under the following parameters:
    • All contracts, grants, and subawards
    • Fiscal years 2012-2015 (full FY2016 data is not yet available)
  2. Combine full results of all searches into a single spreadsheet, while maintaining the search term and source file for each listing, and separating by assistance awards (grants), subawards, and acquisition contracts.
  3. Review all non-monetary transactions for potential data errors.  In some cases a contract would come up with no dollars attached, and upon further review in USASpending a grant using the same Federal award ID number would appear with money attached.  In these cases the award was presumably miscoded by type and the new transactions were added to the spreadsheet.
  4. Eliminate all remaining non-monetary transactions, such as no-cost extensions.
  5. Review the project descriptions of each award to ensure they are actually associated (in some meaningful way) with citizen science.
While Federal contracts are an available source of citizen science funding, they are not ideally suited for these projects and agencies have not used this vehicle frequently over the last four years.  Instead we need to continue looking at other alternatives, such as Federal assistance funding, as well as funding from State/local governments as well as private sources.  So our research will continue over the next few weeks to identify more promising options for everyone.

- First in an occasional series

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

When Citizen Science Results Look too Good to be True

This week there has been much excitement about a fifteen year-old Canadian high school student from discovering a lost Mayan city.  The media (rightfully) like to highlight stories of young people making discoveries beyond their years.  And there is always a mystique about the Mayans and lost cities.  So when the news first broke outlets such as CNN, FoxNews, IFLScience, and others raced to tout the findings.  Unfortunately they may have rushed too quickly.
As a non-professional using astronomy techniques to identify Mayan constellations, overlaying them against a map of previously discovered cities, hypothesizing of a missing city, and then attempting to confirm through satellite imagery, this is absolutely citizen science.  So when this news first began to break I got very excited and wanted to link to it as well.  It's always fun to share the accomplishments of my fellow citizen scientists.
But was it too good to be true?
Apparently so.  While the jury is still out, significant doubt has started creeping in about whether this truly is an archeological anomaly, whether the Mayan's organized their cities around constellations, and even whether we fully understand what those constellation's are.  So many news organizations may end up with egg on their face.
This is very unfortunate.  For starters I feel bad for the kid...he's doing good work and should be applauded regardless of the eventual findings, but I fear the backlash (if he turns out wrong) could be harsh for someone so young.  I also feel bad for the news organizations, who wanted to show young people the potential they posses.  But mainly I feel bad for the citizen science field.  We work so hard to gain respect amongst both professionals and the public, and just as we have a great story to tell, it all falls apart.
In the end, its a great reminder that we must not only provide the same respect to citizen science as we do "professional" science, but we must also provide the same healthy skepticism as well.  We need to verify facts, solicit independent opinions, and provide time for careful analysis.  No different than any other profession.  It may be difficult sometimes and may delay announcement of some exciting discoveries, but it keeps us healthy in the long run.
To quote this Washington Post article:
Citizen science is great, and it’s even more exciting when a teen does it. When folks don’t have the academic background to understand the standard school of thought on a subject — or understand why it has become the general consensus — they’re more likely to come up with novel and cool ideas. And maybe there’s some nugget of something in Gadoury’s research that will go somewhere. But that doesn’t mean we’re doing him — or the researchers who have devoted their lives to studying this stuff — any favors by letting this story run wild.
Put another way, we need to treat citizen science stories the same way we treat all other scientific studies, as HBO's John Oliver so cleverly demonstrated this week:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Inclusion and the 2017 Citizen Science Association Conference

Photo Courtesy: James Willamor
It seems like not too long ago since we all met in San Jose for the last Citizen Science conference.  But time quickly moves on and planning is actively underway for the next conference to be held next February, 2017.  CitSci 2017 promises to be full of useful information and interesting people, but there are many obstacles to overcome first.  Including politics.

Sadly, completely outside of anyone's control from our field, the State of North Carolina recently passed HB2, the so-called "Bathroom Bill" requiring people to only use the bathrooms assigned to their biological sex, and eliminating many legal protections for lesbian, gay, and transgender people.  To quote the CitSci 2017 planners:

The bill flies in the face of the principles on which we are building this association, those of supporting inclusion, diversity, and personal freedom. It also throws a huge monkey wrench into planning a conference where everyone feels safe and welcome. The legislation and ensuing counter-actions in protest both compromise the opportunity for this conference to be safe and inclusive, goals that we strongly value, as do our host partners.

As a private citizen living outside of North Carolina, this bill troubles me with its attempts to not only stigmatize a vulnerable transgender population, but to actively tell local governments that it is illegal to protect entire swaths of people.  This is a highly dangerous proposition and one I personally can't support.  It certainly makes me not want to spend money in that State.  But should we sacrifice the many good things that can come out of the conference because of the law?  Are we hurting our many allies in North Carolina who don't support the law?  Can we be an agent of change through our examples of openness and inclusion?  These are no longer hypotheticals but real questions with serious consequences (on both sides).

Everyone is wrestling with this question, including the conference planners.  They take their jobs seriously and seem to be struggling with a course of action.  But they don't need to decide alone.  They have set up a survey for all members (and other potential conference goers) to let their own voices be heard.  Let the association know whether you are planning to attend, whether the NC law prevents you from attending (either legally or ethically), whether you'd like to see the conference moved, and any alternative solutions to the problem.  While I don't think it is binding they want to hear from us all, and I applaud them for taking this step.  So please help them by reading their detailed concerns here and taking the survey.  Decisions must be made soon so please provide your thoughts as soon as possible.  We all appreciate it.

Where do I stand?

In my humble opinion, this law is based on the assumption that allowing transgender people into the bathroom of their choosing will threaten the safety of others.  But there is no evidence that this is the case, and as far as I've seen, there have been NO reported cases of transgender individuals attacking or otherwise harassing people in the bathroom.  As a citizen science organization I believe we should hold tightly to relying on facts and honest inquiry as the basis for making laws, and this bill represents neither of those.  It comes only from mean-spiritedness (by some) and fear (by others).  But not from any real threat.  Unfortunately the logic argument has already been lost, so I can't see how keeping the conference in the State will change any hearts of minds; that ship has already sailed.  So that is why I personally voted that we move the conference.  Even if it costs a bit more, or involves extra hassle, it is an important step and one that will have more impact than staying and attempting to lead by example.  This type of ecoomic pressure has worked for other State laws and it is (sadly) time we do the same.

But what's your opinion?  Please let the association know so that whatever the decision, we can start acting to help the situation and people stuck in it.