Saturday, 24 May 2008

Is there a place for Amateur Scientists?

I pride myself on being a contemporary Amateur Scientist. Whether this pride is justified or not is not for me to decide, but I staunchly believe in the need for such backing of institutional Science. Recently my dedication was strengthened. The story below shows how and why...

The story begins with an essay competition I read about in New Scientist

Wellcome Trust and New Scientist essay competition

In partnership with 'New Scientist', the Wellcome Trust runs an annual competition inviting postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers in science, engineering and technology to tell the world about their work.

The competition is about encouraging researchers to communicate their science and to explore the possible implications of their work for society. The judges look for interesting, creative and fresh approaches, in a style that would appeal to readers of New Scientist. The competition is open to entries from PhD students who are registered at an internationally recognised university.

I decided that while the amount of actual research I do is rather minimal (a few arXiv preprints) I do have something to say - mostly tongue-in-cheek - with particular motivation coming from the effort to defy the last limitation of the participation. There was no age limit - but you have to be registered at a recognized university? So, in direct violation of the rules I submitted the following essay, arguing that Science can be done outside such institutions, more, that such activities should be encouraged...

Sociophysics from Home

Today’s science is a domain of universities, international research projects and formalised grant processes. Groups of specialists communicate in a language that is incomprehensible to anyone outside their circle. Even the rules of this competition reflect such view – the participants are limited to those affiliated with appropriate research institutions. Is it because science is `done' only there?

On the other hand the social reception of science is getting less and less favourable, the appeal of scientific curiosity is diminishing. Other `narratives’ are growing in popularity, some of them openly irrational and anti-scientific. The conventional response is to try to get more and more young people to universities. This is, of course, important, but not enough. Many of these students leave science for other occupations and never return to the scientific frame of mind. My own story describes such a return to science. What I call for is restoration of the status of AMATEUR SCIENTIST.

Of course, there are disciplines where the huge machinery and funding are simply necessary condition for success. But there are discoveries that may be made by amateurs, and other useful roles they may play.

My involvement with applications of physical methods in sociology (sociophysics) is an interesting example. Long after I left semiconductor research I have heard someone mention Bose-Einstein condensation in computer networks. This sounded so ridiculous that I decided to look it up, and step by step got enthralled by the topic. The existence of freely accessible databases and search engines allowed me to track some of the new developments. Even to my untrained eye some publications were just begging for corrections or extensions. So I dusted off my FORTRAN skills (and in some cases simply used spreadsheets) and wrote my own simulations. I went through some of the discipline topics: assortative matching, theory of cooperation, influence of leadership strategies on opinion formation. Thanks to arXiv site anyone can `publish’, so I did. The result was not overwhelming – a few people downloaded the papers, some commented on them, as far as I know they were not cited. I’d be the first to admit their limited value. But – and this is, I guess, the most important part of amateur research – I was able, as a participant, to change my outlook on the topic profoundly. For by doing something myself, I was able to see the difficulties and the simplifications, to recognize the processes, which is much more than just seeing the results.

One of the first questions was: does modelling of social phenomena using simplistic tools have any sense? Do we really gain understanding or is it just a fad, a convenient way to get grants and publications? Some papers were obviously trivial. But there were others that seemed to detect mechanisms underlying our real social behaviour, sometimes quite surprising. Somewhat later, I began to get referee requests from established journals. I try to do this task conscientiously, feeling that my lack of bonds imposed usually by one’s own career and the web of mutual obligations and cooperation allows quite a lot of candour in the analyses. And it just spurs my own interests. I feel that in this relationship between institutionalised and amateur science both sides win.

And this is the reason why I call for re-establishment of the honourable status of the amateur scientist. Obviously, it is not limited to sociophysics. Ecology and observational biology are classical examples from Victorian era. But there are many more, I am sure. The cost of promoting such activities for traditional scientific institutions is minimal, compared to the grand projects. Guidance in topic choice for prospective participants, coordination, help in access to publications. Occasional funding for conferences. Yet the outcome may be tremendous. Many of the people who now leave the universities, with reasonable education but no wish for a full time research career, could be brought back to the scientific way of seeing and understanding the world. Moreover, they would become science’s ambassadors, sometimes much better than `proper’ scientists, because amateurs are used to talk in comprehensible language. To get the `part time research’ back on the list of interesting and fashionable hobbies seems well worth the trouble.

Well, a few days after my submission has been posted I received a curt reply from the Wellcome Trust:
Hi Pawel,
Very sorry, but you are ineligible to enter the competition.

Now, I was not particularly surprised. And I fully agree with the right of the organisers to set out and enforce all the rules for the competition. Their money, their show, their right. But I was saddened. Because I do believe that every means to get greater public involvement in Science is beneficial - to both Science and Society. And the particular choice of rules reflects the division between the `certified', academic world of universities and the public, which, at best, is a target of communication, never a participant.

My initial thoughts were that the competition rules seem to embody the basic principle that
1. `Proper' Science is done only in established institutions. This is where ALL the scientists are.
And it seems that indeed they are confirmed.

While this is true for most of the scientific effort, there are clear examples of achievements coming from outside of the academic circles.
Moreover, by stressing the origin, instead of content of the work, we arrive at several consequences that are not necessarily positive:

2. We create an image that any `science' done without the official support of an established institution is, by definition, uninteresting or crank.
3. The general public gets estranged from the ivory tower, and drawn to `alternative explanations', sometimes with disastrous results in policy determination
4. Science itself loses a lot of possible active supporters through a lack of `retention policy', which could encourage the low-level involvement in scientific development.

My motivation for submitting the essay was directly connected with the main goal of the competition "As well as communicating their science, researchers are encouraged to explore the possible implications of their work for society." In a sense, I see my submission - with full recognition of breaking of the formal rules - as a practical experiment in sociology of science. As for the results...

I am more than ever convinced that increasing the public involvement with DOING science, on every level, is sensible and much needed. But I seem to be rather alone in my feelings...

1 comment:

Yale S.Y. Landsberg said...

Per your "I am more than ever convinced that increasing the public involvement with DOING science, on every level, is sensible and much needed. But I seem to be rather alone in my feelings..."

You are not alone. Perhaps "doing science" has to be relatively easy and have a personal up-side for it to be done by the average person.

If so, here is an experiment that lots of people should consider doing: Can't hurt. And might help. Maybe a lot.