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Government Science Politics

Citizen Science: Who Makes the Rules? 189

Posted by timothy
from the government-of-mexico-evidently dept.
New submitter UnderCoverPenguin writes "At MakeZine, David Lang talks about the some of the legal issues around a planned, amateur science 'expedition,' as well as some other amateur science projects. In the not too distant past, most science was amateur. Over the past 20 or so years, society has been making it harder for amateurs to do real science, despite the technical costs falling. With the recent upswing of the 'maker movement,' amateur science has seen an increase as well, but is running into an assortment of legal issues. (An exception is astronomy, where amateurs continue to play important roles. Of course, astronomy doesn't involve chemicals or other (currently) 'scary stuff.') Can amateur science make a come-back? Or are the legal obstacles too entrenched?"
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Citizen Science: Who Makes the Rules?

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  • by phantomfive (622387) on Monday December 30, 2013 @01:46AM (#45816197) Journal

    Can amateur science make a come-back?.....amateur science has seen an increase

    Sounds like the answer is, "Yes."

    • by g01d4 (888748)

      ...certainly we had obtained the relevant permissions to take biological samples in Mexico. Not exactly.

      I would guess the most successful (i.e. published) amateur science is done in coordination with professionals.

      • The question in the headline is, "Who makes the rules?" And you think the answer is, "no?" Please explain.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          no.

    • by flyneye (84093)

      In this age, people are finally catching up to the evolution of thought that; you are free to do what you want as long as you harm no one and DONT get caught.
      I predict a rise in home made EMP and HERF projects to combat the rise in drone projects. I think privacy and self defence projects are going to lead the way for a while.
      Actually, the only real difference between amateur and professional science is; amateurs have less funding and are immune to corruption of fact by payola from benefactors. It is far to

    • by memnock (466995)

      Science asks questions. It is skeptical. This means being skeptical of authority too. This will make the government nervous. They would probably prefer official "scientists" to a bunch of "hacks". This doesn't mean they are right. The government is great at bureaucracy and officiousness, especially if it means they can then exclude otherwise able people who don't toe the party line.

  • by jonwil (467024) on Monday December 30, 2013 @02:04AM (#45816251)

    Thanks to the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on fireworks, the war on common sense and various other wars, its becoming harder and harder for amateurs who want to do chemistry (either generic experiments or genuine research) in their own home/shed/backyard.

    Chemical suppliers wont sell to amateurs and hobbyists. Basic chemicals are restricted from sale because they happen to be used in drugs/fireworks/explosives as well as the 100 other uses those chemicals happen to be used for. Some US states require licenses or registration for even basic lab equipment. Hobby chemists who have done nothing illegal are being raided by the police and having their gear seized because it "could be used to make bombs/drugs/fireworks/etc"

    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Monday December 30, 2013 @03:30AM (#45816505) Journal

      Hobby chemists who have done nothing illegal are being raided by the police and having their gear seized because it "could be used to make bombs/drugs/fireworks/etc"

      Because scientists were once expected to make their own glassware, someone figured "why not let kids learn too?"
      So back in the heyday of science kits, you used to be able to buy a glassblowing kit for your kid.
      http://www.thestrong.org/online-collections/images/Z002/Z00244/Z0024483.jpg [thestrong.org]

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Hobby chemists who have done nothing illegal are being raided by the police and having their gear seized because it "could be used to make bombs/drugs/fireworks/etc"

        Because scientists were once expected to make their own glassware, someone figured "why not let kids learn too?"
        So back in the heyday of science kits, you used to be able to buy a glassblowing kit for your kid.
        http://www.thestrong.org/online-collections/images/Z002/Z00244/Z0024483.jpg [thestrong.org]

        You reminded me of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments: http://chemistry.about.com/library/goldenchem.pdf
        They didn't go quite as in depth, but they did mention & show how to create some lab equipment similar to what you're talking about.

    • by Pinkfud (781828) on Monday December 30, 2013 @03:58AM (#45816563) Homepage
      Not just hobby chemists either. I'm a geologist with a minor in analytic chemistry. I used to have an assay lab where I could run samples for qualitative analysis. That's in the crapper now. You have to jump through hoops to get things like con nitric acid, and just forget anything like potassium cyanide. And if you do manage to get supplies, they make you a target for a raid any time the local cops get a bug up their ass. So no more lab. :(
      • Hmmm, never considered a quick search of Ebay to be jumping through hoops.

        http://www.ebay.com/itm/Nitric-Acid-70-Pint-Hydrochloric-Acid-Quart-Aqua-Regia-Gold-Recovery-/111117206284?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item19df1a030c

        • by Pinkfud (781828)
          $50 per pint, and it's technical grade. I used to get a case of 4 5-liter jugs of top reagent grade for ~$90. But even so, it's illegal to possess it here.
        • by thegarbz (1787294)

          Hmmm, never considered a quick search of Ebay to be jumping through hoops.

          http://www.ebay.com/itm/Nitric-Acid-70-Pint-Hydrochloric-Acid-Quart-Aqua-Regia-Gold-Recovery-/111117206284?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item19df1a030c

          Buying something and receiving something are two different things. Here in Australia I can buy a lot of things online which get confiscated on the way into the country.

          It also doesn't change the fact that Potassium Cyanide used to be available over the counter at the chemist, so yes searching on ebay is comparatively "jumping through hoops".

        • Could someone familiar tell us if this is an FBI honey pot?

          Just see if there is "Yellow Cake uranium -- cheap!" offered by the same seller to be sure.

      • If you're a geologist then why can't you register your shed / garage as a lab?

        I can understand why you may perhaps want to keep potassium cyanide out of the hands of normal people, but it is almost certainly still being used by proper labs.

        • The rules for that sort of thing are ridiculous. Its more or less impossible for the armature. Better off getting cosy with the local university or something.
      • Not just hobby chemists either. I'm a geologist with a minor in analytic chemistry. I used to have an assay lab where I could run samples for qualitative analysis. That's in the crapper now. You have to jump through hoops to get things like con nitric acid, and just forget anything like potassium cyanide. And if you do manage to get supplies, they make you a target for a raid any time the local cops get a bug up their ass. So no more lab. :(

        I remember having Potassium Ferrocyanide in my chemistry set, as a ten year old. (Yes, that one's essentially non-toxic, but releases the highly toxic gas if you mix with an acid.)

        And I'm hardly ancient. It wasn't really that long ago.

      • Heck, I'm fairly sure the chemistry kit I had when I was 10 would put someone on the FBI most wanted list today.

        And for all that "security" where is the drug-free and fluffy safe future we traded this for? I'll trade a few potassium cyanide poisonings for 10,000 SWAT raids.

    • .... its becoming harder and harder for amateurs who want to do chemistry (either generic experiments or genuine research) in their own home/shed/backyard.

      I wonder if that might be something that feeds into the growing interest in home brewing, cheese making, and so forth. As you get more sophisticated you do start using various analytical techniques that would be familiar to chemists, but there is little chance that the police will bother you, and at the end you have a tasty reward.

    • by gmuslera (3436)
      There had already been cases like a student being expelled from school and arrested [themarysue.com] because an experiment caused an small explosion (a bit of smoke and the top of the bottle to pop up). That is what is been teached in schools, where you are supposed to learn science, try it by yourself and you are risking to go to jail.
      • I still remember in the mid-80s, a friend had an experiment explode, it put holes in his shirt and holes in the ceiling tiles, the best part is was an Fireman who would worked on Chemical Fires, which is why he had to take the class in the first place. He didn't get arrested or anything, but he did learn a valuable lesson that day.
    • Thanks to the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on fireworks, the war on common sense and various other wars, its becoming harder and harder for amateurs who want to do chemistry in their own home/shed/backyard.
      Chemical suppliers wont sell to amateurs and hobbyists.

      The A C Gilbert Heirloom Chemistry Set [kickstarter.com] project was fully funded three days ago. ($149,000)

      H.M.S. Beagle [hms-beagle.com] has about 600 chemicals for sale online. H.M.S. Beagle Publications: Materials Safety Data Sheets [hms-beagle.com]

      United Nuclear [unitednuclear.com] is a rich resource for the amateur scientist. Radioactive Isotopes [unitednuclear.com]. Chemistry Experiments [unitednuclear.com]

      -----

      Chemistry Supply Websites [chemistrytwig.com]

    • by TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) on Monday December 30, 2013 @09:34AM (#45817727)
      You know i had this problem when i wanted 50% H2O2. The lab supplier said no, regardless of what paper work i came up with. But the industrial suppler was like "We don't sell one liter bottles, but 25kg is $50", which was about the same price as 1 liter from the lab suppler. I asked about permits etc. All i needed was a dangerous good vehicle if i was transporting more than 100kg. They also sold me some red fuming HNO3.

      Turns out at least in some countries there is a lot of "assumed" laws that don't exist. And lab suppliers seem to be paranoid.
    • I hear ya and all, but hell, who wants "amateurs" to be experimenting with chemicals next door anyway?
  • Biased summary (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by Jiro (131519)

    Which can be worse than a merely inaccurate one. First of all, TFA says nothing about changes in the past 20 years, and many of the things described in the article have manifestly not just been made up in the past 20 years. Do you really think Mexico would have let you take biological specimens prior to 1994? Second, the tone of the summary implies that these experiments are being restricted because they are "scary stuff". Only a minority of the experiments described in the article are associated with s

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Monday December 30, 2013 @02:10AM (#45816267)

    Why bother with the time, expense, and hard work of amateur science when you can just outsource it to people who make stuff up?

  • by dbIII (701233) on Monday December 30, 2013 @02:27AM (#45816333)
    Where is this David Lang getting this stuff from?
    Just the other day I was listening to an interview of an artist that had published a well received book on avian anatomy. Pick just about any field and there are people without degrees in that field doing real science and getting it taken seriously.
    • Re:It never stopped (Score:5, Informative)

      by TubeSteak (669689) on Monday December 30, 2013 @03:37AM (#45816533) Journal

      Where is this David Lang getting this stuff from?

      Read about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioprospecting [wikipedia.org]
      There have been numerous lawsuits on behalf of natives peoples to invalidate patents based on local plants and local knowledge.
      The West has a long history of appropriating plants and knowledge from countries, which is why TFA talks about the permits required for foreigners to do science in Mexico.

      Just the other day I was listening to an interview of an artist that had published a well received book on avian anatomy.

      Not all science is created equal.
      There aren't that many laws surrounding the study of avian anatomy, compared to chemistry or the atomic sciences.
      Most stuff a hobbyist ca not buy and, of the things a hobbyist can buy, a lot of them will put you on the FBI's radar.
      Hobbyist science ain't what it used to be and neither is the scope of the law. [wkyt.com]

      • It's disgusting to blame scientists for multinational corporations using a broken patent system as a blunt instrument. That's just kicking the cat.
      • by dbIII (701233)

        Most stuff a hobbyist ca not buy and, of the things a hobbyist can buy, a lot of them will put you on the FBI's radar.

        I've bought controlled substances by the drum and just had to show I was part of a registered business. In a lot of places that's just a matter of filling out forms every year to register a small business or get sole trader/contractor status.
        Of course there are some things that would be harder to get but you don't actually need a degree to get them.

      • by dbIII (701233)

        a lot of them will put you on the FBI's radar

        So what? If you've got a legitimate use you tell them beforehand to avoid later confusion. You may drown in paperwork but if it's all sorted out before you actually have the stuff it doesn't really matter if you are "on their radar" or not.

    • Not in medicine or human/animal biology. It is impossible because of the limitations on animal research. In most countries, you have to have a licence to perform animal experiments and said licence is usually tied in some way to a project and/or to a specific location within which you can perform the experiments. As an amateur you could still probably work with cell cultures but that means having access to an incubator and a sterile lab. Plus I don't know where you would get your cells in the first place. I
  • by spasm (79260) on Monday December 30, 2013 @02:34AM (#45816357) Homepage

    TFA is not so much about "legal issues" as it is about the struggle to get permission to collect biological specimens in another country. Another country where there's unfortunately been a long history of scientists and pseudo-scientists from more wealthy countries showing up and taking whatever they wanted, sometimes to the severe detriment of the locals. Ok, we're talking about Mexico and the US if you're too lazy to read TFA. The "legal issues" are the system of review the Mexican government has put in place in response to prior abuses, designed to ensure new research projects don't exploit, destroy, or otherwise cause the kinds of problems both amateur and professional scientists have caused in the past. I'm glad the author of the TFA is attempting to work out how to make it work, rather than just declare that his 'right' to do research in another country trumps local law, and I'm also glad to hear the Mexican government people he emailed appear to be responding throughtfully.

    TL,DR - this isn't about citizen science being stifled by The Man, it's about a particular project hitting a hiccup caused by a long history of 'amateur scientists' exploiting and destroying another country's cultural and biological heritage.

  • by presidenteloco (659168) on Monday December 30, 2013 @02:48AM (#45816391)

    The fact that scientific knowledge, in the form of scientific articles, is locked behind exorbitant journal paywalls is what is preventing amateur science the most, not to mention would be professional science in places that can't afford the outlandish subscription fees.

    It's a crime against humanity preventing what is often publicly funded scientific knowledge from being shared far and wide, as it could be with virtually no cost on the Internet.

    This is a shameful state of affairs that needs to be fixed one way or the other. Long live Aaron!

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This depends on the field. In physics and astronomy, almost everything gets published on arxiv.org [arxiv.org] (in addition to the journals), where it's free to access.

    • by grqb (410789)

      I agree. The public needs to have access to these journal articles. Now that I've left academia I don't even have free access to the articles that I wrote myself. (of course I kept the PDFs but if I ever lose them I'd have to pay $40 for every article that I wrote). It really does hold back progress.

  • We just try to discover them.

    Anyone can do it if they ask reality the right questions (experiments).

  • by chrismcb (983081) on Monday December 30, 2013 @03:01AM (#45816429) Homepage
    The article begins:

    For a group of citizen explorers, without an affiliation to a scientific institution, this is a daunting endeavor.

    I think this could just be amended to "For a group of scientists this is a daunting endeavor." Of course scientists attached to a legal institution can probably draw on the help of other resources and people who know how to jump through some of these hoops. But they still have to deal with the same legal issues.

  • by jones_supa (887896) on Monday December 30, 2013 @03:30AM (#45816501)

    Wouldn't the complexity of doing stuff be the biggest bottleneck at some point?

    Just like game programming: in the past you could code simple games in a week (or a weekend if you are a tough guy). Compare that to modern shader-based graphics programming -- you will spend the first month just finding out how to set up things to draw anything meaningful on the screen.

    • IMO the biggest problem with games (for a programmer) isn't the 3D calculations, it's the art.

      The number of artists (and musicians) working on a modern game is surprisingly large.
      • Tru dat bro. There we can see increased complexity too: in the past you were working with low-res bitmaps in Deluxe Paint, now you might be tweaking hi-poly models in Maya for days and weeks to have one animated character completed.
      • It's both. Comparing OpenGL (ES) to sprite-based and tile-based 2D is kind of like comparing J2EE in all its distributed splendor to PHP.

        OpenGL ES 2 was a pain, but dear Jesus God, I spent the better part of a day just TYPING IN the HelloWorld code for an OpenGL ES 3 Android app, and ended up with something like 8 or 10 classes that compiled into a .apk file several hundred kilobytes in size just to draw a yellow triangle on a black screen. Now, admittedly, the increased HelloWorld complexity eventually pay

        • ^^^ Argh. Proofreading typo-blindness. "~25 years ago, I got a Vic-20 on Christmas Eve. By dinner on Christmas Day, ..."

  • by Goldsmith (561202) on Monday December 30, 2013 @04:00AM (#45816567)

    If you want to do science on your own, you can and should incorporate. Be a non-profit if you'd like. The entrenched system which stifles non-university researchers gladly accepts small businesses and NGOs, as long as they have some funding.

    The number one thing you should not expect about doing science, at any level, is that it will be cheap, quick or lean. When it comes to science those words mean the same thing as "violating environmental and safety law" or simply doing a piss-poor job.

    If you want to do real chemistry or biology work, you will find that renting or begging lab space somewhere will be cheaper than actually making your garage legally suitable.

    • The insight about incorporating is interesting, and given the facts of the situation, might not be a bad idea.

      To your other point:
      >The number one thing you should not expect about doing science, at any level, is that it will be cheap, quick or lean. When it comes to science those words mean the same thing as "violating environmental and safety law" or simply doing a piss-poor job.

      THIS is what's unfortunate. The point of the article (IMO) was to lament the state of things that law-abiding citizens aren't

  • In that you choose which rules to follow, and which to ignore, subvert, avoid, or not even bother learning about.

  • Ammoniacal (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 30, 2013 @07:23AM (#45817181)

    I'm a second year biochemistry student who's had a lifelong passion for chemistry. I've slowly built myself a lab over the years, where I've mostly been making or purifying OTC chemicals to common lab reagents. One day I came across an old paper claiming high yields of acetonitrile when using calcium carbide as a dehydrating agents instead of phosphorus pentoxide. I've talked to quite a few people having problems finding phosphorus pentoxide, or it just being too expensive to use. So being the curious person I am, I thought I'd try both agents and report my yields on the forums. Because I wanted good numbers, I decided to buy some acetamide instead if making it. The only other reagent you use in the distillation. Simply ordered a 250 g jar off ebay, but the order never arrived. Four months later I receive a phone call by the police, interrogating me about the contents of the package, and my intentions with it. I invented a little half-lie on the spot, said I used it for a curing bath for photographic film. A month later I do receive it, labeled "Seized by customs". But now I'm afraid to do anything, expecting them to be at my door at any moment, to see what I'm "really" using it for. So I close down my "lab" temporarily, pack it all into some cases and put them for storage. The next week I get another call from the police, this time from an investigator on "my case". Asking about the amounts I had used, and for what. Etc.

    And now I don't know what to do anymore. And all this for acetamide, a substance you get when mixing ammonia and "non-acetone nail polish remover", not even a precursor to any drugs (although it can be used to make a precursor), and has no use in either bombs or pyrotechnics.

    Seems like a quick end to a rather short-lived hobby.

    • That is sad. Fear and ignorance have always held progress, or just plain "pleasure of finding things out" in check. But that kind of info-conservatism was one problem our supposed American freedoms banished, and we have claimed, to our enormous advantage in standard of living. What are we now? A country where fear and ignorance are institutional and pervasive. You can't go underground for your supplies either since that will clearly indicate to the bureaucracy that you had nefarious intent. *sigh*
    • by pepty (1976012)

      And all this for acetamide, a substance you get when mixing ammonia and "non-acetone nail polish remover", not even a precursor to any drugs (although it can be used to make a precursor), and has no use in either bombs or pyrotechnics.

      Seems like a quick end to a rather short-lived hobby.

      Maybe it was the actual use you intended (dehydration to acetonitrile) that freaked them out, or rather the idea of someone trying to obtain acetonitrile on the sly as opposed to getting it as a side product of acrylonitrile (carpet, ABS plastic, etc) like everyone else. After all, acetonitrile = methyl CYANIDE; Acetonitrile + terrorist + google search = SARIN GAS ATTACK TOKYO...

      Only time I ever had an issue with customs when ordering for a lab was a uronium salt (well, sort of an uronium salt: HBTU) fro

  • by Wdi (142463) on Monday December 30, 2013 @08:00AM (#45817337)

    Very misleading original article full of misguided complaints. Controls on the export of native plants or other biological specimen have been in place for hundreds of years, and with much harsher penalties.

    The members of the expedition have a, admittedly tedious, path to get permits. Just play by the rules.

    When John Rolfe smuggled tobacco from Trinidad to Virginia in 1611, establishing its tobacco farming industry, there was a mandatory death sentence for seed smugglers imposed by the Spanish colonialists.

  • Microryza [microryza.com], which appears to basically be Kickstarter for science projects, was recently brought to my attention. It doesn't look like there's anything barring non-academics / "amateurs" from starting up a project.
  • Franklin sued to pay people to steal corpses so he and his friends could dissect them and learn about anatomy. This was very highly illegal in Colonial America. They had a basement in a where he was staying . It was a part of the Enlighenment impulse to to come to understand reality through natural science without the *benefit* of the intermediaries of his day the Church and the King, who were glad to tell you everything you needed to know about any topic whatsoever.

    As is sometimes the case with facts abou

    • Stealing bodies led to many medical advances and for a period of time was what medical schools were forced into. It's what you had to do if you wanted to learn about human physiology in those times.

      Eventually it became such a problem that grave robbers started taking short cuts and created their own corpses (cf. Burke and Hare). This eventually led to the 1832 Anatomy Act in England addressing the crisis in medical education that the short supply of cadavers created.

      From Wikipedia:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/w [wikipedia.org]

      • Yep. Same thing with computers. If it was up to IBM et al computers and the internet would still be the sole providence of the elites- unbelievably pricey stuff we only heard about second and third hand. The whole industry would be tiny, and super expensive. It's not he elites who ever pass anything along downstream, it's the tinkerers and hobbyists and garage inventors.
  • (An exception is astronomy, where amateurs continue to play important roles. Of course, astronomy doesn't involve chemicals or other (currently) 'scary stuff.')

    You just wait. Someday an amateur astronomer is going to discover an asteroid that will hit the earth and kill us all. Then you'll see how scary amateur astronomy really is! We can only be safe by prohibiting these dangerous amateurs and leaving the field to the responsible professionals.

  • by PvtVoid (1252388) on Monday December 30, 2013 @12:15PM (#45818923)
    You mean regulatory authorities don't want random yahoos hauling biological samples across borders and flying unmanned drones all over the place? Shocking!

    Shit, they probably don't want people building nuclear reactors in their backyards, either.
  • I remember reading in the [now discontinued] "Amateur Scientist" column that used to publish in Scientific American, a guide to how one could build a medium power infrared CO2 laser. Nowadays, just buying the parts would have DHS knocking on your door[or maybe they don't bother with knocking?]
  • One of the major issues here has been the problem of intellectual property. Post plans online, download and print and bypass the licensed manufacturers and distribution network. So the press grabbed the plastic guns issue and ran with it, trying to demonize the hobby.

    Its all about open source vs securitized and privatized models for knowledge. You figure out how to make something yourself and you put a dent in corporate shareholders' property.

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