Citizen Science and Exploration: Who Makes the Rules?

Citizen Science and Exploration: Who Makes the Rules?
Ed Ricketts in his lab in 1945 - dissecting a shark. Photo by Peter Stackpole (Yes, most amazingly, Eric Stackpole's grandfather). SU Archive #158.
Ed Ricketts in his lab in 1945 – dissecting a shark. Photo by Peter Stackpole (Yes, most amazingly, Eric Stackpole’s grandfather). SU Archive #158.

As we continue to prepare for our Cortez trip, someone casually questioned what kind of permits we had to obtain. I mean, certainly we had obtained the relevant permissions to take biological samples in Mexico.

Not exactly.

OK, so we’ll get permits. Should be straightforward enough. Fill out some paperwork, send it in, get the permits in the mail. No big deal.

Not exactly.

For a group of citizen explorers, without an affiliation to a scientific institution, this is a daunting endeavor. One that gets more complicated and convoluted the more you dig into it. A few google searches into the process and you find yourself on the website of the US Embassy in Mexico. Here’s what it’s going to take:

“When a research application is submitted to the Department of State or the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, it is passed to the Mexican Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE). The SRE coordinates the review and approval process for the Mexican government. The appropriate Mexican technical agencies review applications for research permits, but only the SRE has the authority to grant final official approval. Keep in mind that requests are often reviewed by several technical agencies, each of which must independently approve the project before the SRE grants final authorization. The fact that you are aware that your counterpart at one of the technical agencies has approved the project does not mean that all of the relevant technical agencies have given their approval and that the SRE has issued its final authorization.

SRE’s final authorization will be granted through a diplomatic note that is formally sent to the Embassy. The Embassy will then send the permit to you by mail or fax. You should not begin your research until you have received formal authorization from SRE. Any research that is not authorized by a diplomatic note from SRE is not authorized by the Mexican government.”

And that’s just the introduction. The page goes on to lay out some pretty exhaustive requirements. All seemingly reasonable for a scientific professional, I’m sure, but for our group? Forget it. I had heard from scientist friends that grant writing takes up most of their time. I thought by drastically lowering costs, and not needing to go through a lengthy grant writing process, that we could move faster. This throws a wrench in that theory.

In a world where you can get a day-of fishing permit at a tackle shop, surely there should be a way to take a water sample. I decided to dig deeper. I emailed the address listed on the website – – and asked them how a group of amateurs like us should proceed. I received a prompt and thoughtful response about how this had never been asked, and more research was needed. After a few more emails back and forth, as well as further up the chain of command, we still don’t have a good answer. We do have more questions, though: is what we’re doing even science? Will we be able to collaborate with an institution? If we don’t have permits, where is the line we shouldn’t cross? At what point is it scientific research?

“The State Department had little or no interest in the collection of marine invertebrates unless carried on by an institution of learning, preferably with Dr. Butler as its president. The government never made such representations for private citizens. Lastly, the State Department hoped to God we would not get into trouble and appeal for aid.”
-John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

We don’t want to break any rules – ending up in a Mexican jail for biopiracy is clearly a worst case scenario. But we don’t know where the line is. Nobody really does. The falling costs of science and exploration tools are opening up new opportunities and allowing citizen explorers to push new boundaries and ask new questions.

We’re still trying to understand the capabilities of the tools ourselves. And the established, bureaucratic systems don’t have a good way to clarify it, either. Looking around the maker world, you can see the different issues arising when projects wander off the map of legal understanding:

Regulatory Jostling

The UAV community – nestled confusingly in between the RC plane hobbyists and commercial airline traffic – is still waiting for rules from the FAA. Affordable UAVs have opened a whole new can of worms. The considerations are complex: safety, economic, privacy, technological capability. And the interests are much broader than the commercial ambitions of Amazon and Domino’s, it affects amateurs all over the world, like the conservationists in South Africa who want to use UAVs to monitor for poachers.

Unlikely Rulemakers

The Glowing Plant project stirred up a debate on Kickstarter, with both pro-biotech and anti-GMO activists voicing their opinion on what should or shouldn’t be allowed on the site. Kickstarter looked around for precedence, and consulted with scientists to determine the best course of action. In the end, they decided against allowing genetically modified organisms as project rewards. Understandably, it just wasn’t their place to decide. So whos is it?

Ethics Issues

The citizen microbiology project uBiome stirred up an ethics controversy by including human subjects in their research without getting approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). As a professional scientist, you’re bound to ethics codes of various Societies and Academies. It’s often unclear and confusing to amateurs how and when these rules apply.

The list is growing longer, and each situation seems to bring up new questions. No one seems to know where to start, but everyone agrees something should be done. Not just to curb the possible negative outcomes but, more importantly, to encourage and support the potential benefits.

In response to the uBiome incident, scientist and blogger Dr. Danielle Lee called for more self-policing among citizen scientists. She was critical of uBiome, didn’t offer much in the way of suggested improvements, but did provide a good explanation and reasoning for ethics in science:

“When one person gets out of line, we ALL take a hit for it, get scrutinized and in some cases demonized for not being ethical.”

This will be true for citizen science and exploration as well. Not just in terms of rules and regulations, but also for the relationship between amateur and pro scientists, which is critical to making this movement useful and exciting. My perspective is that all groups need to approach this with an open mind. Scientists have patience and encouragement for citizen science projects. Regulators look for a way to encourage this type of public participation. And citizen explorers and scientists recognize how much we have to learn, and be open to feedback and constructive criticism.

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. And just because we need to be careful, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

Stewart Brand’s recent letter to Esther Dyson proposed “Cautionary Vigilance”:

“It’s a form of issue mapping. Any new technology, any innovation, can be thought through by dissecting the full range of its complexity into an array of specific arguments whose outcomes are determined by evidence that emerges over time.”

I like the idea. Especially for new technologies and cutting-edge applications, like reviving extinct species. But I’m not sure it tracks as well when technology becomes ubiquitous, a moment that usually carries more (and fundamentally different) cultural impact. Who’s minding the caution? Who carries out the vigilance?

We need a similar idea for citizen science and exploration. One that incorporates the wisdom and oversight of the scientific community, uses time as a tool, but also encourages novel and inventive participation. “Cautionary Vigilance” in the guise of a public forum.

As for our Cortez trip, we’re dialing back on the science we planned, using the trip to test equipment and prove the concept. Also, we’ll see what we need to improve so that we can return for another trip; older, wiser, and with all the necessary permits.

“For many little errors like this, we have concluded that all collecting trips to fairly unknown regions should be made twice; once to make mistakes and once to correct them.”
– John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

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Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

View more articles by David Lang


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