Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Downside of "Citizen Science"

I realize that what I am about to write will probably offend even some of my most loyal followers, but it needs to be said. Natural history museums, zoos, nature centers, parks, and other public and private institutions have come to rely too heavily on volunteers to accomplish their missions, especially in management of specimen collections.

Case in point: Today one of my Facebook friends posted this recruiting announcement. I was all excited until I saw it was for volunteers. Do you really want non-professionals handling specimens? The time and expense to properly train them really outweighs hiring a professional? You can’t contract for this kind of work?

Those institutions that do offer paying opportunities sometimes have unrealistic expectations, desiring PhD- or Masters-level candidates when a Bachelor’s degree, or even experience in lieu of a degree, would be more than enough to execute the requirements of the position. Increasingly, work in collections management in particular has become grant-dependent, for a limited amount of time, and still heavily reliant on volunteers being managed by the person hired for the project. This only serves to set up a destructive cycle of neglect of collections followed by salvaging of specimens years later, followed by another period of neglect and so on.

I freely admit that I take all of this as a personal insult to my previous professional experience and current abilities to work in a museum setting and advance the goals of whatever department I’m working in. I don’t think I am necessarily “better” than any other person in this field, but I certainly have better qualifications than a volunteer or docent off the street. Museums deserve better than that as well. I don’t need to make a fortune, either, but I need to be able to pay the rent, afford health care if I need it, pay for my own continuing education, and save for increasingly frequent stretches of unemployment when I don’t have any income.

That leads to another point I believe is not being considered: The failure of investments that retirees were counting on for income has left them looking for paying work as well. The volunteer pool will be steadily shrinking in coming decades. Better to address this now, and reward good work with a paycheck instead of just a pat on the back or a plaque.

The continuing devaluation of professional personnel in the natural sciences, from museum collections to field work and public education must cease. We owe it to current generations, as well as future generations, to deliver the high quality services that only experienced professionals can provide. Could it be that the trend toward “anti-scientifism” is one result of such a heavy reliance on non-scientists to do scientific work and deliver science education? I’m just sayin’.


  1. You should still pursue this. They may be asking for a volunteer, but maybe they would pay for someone with your expertise, if the price is right. I think you should call them. If they say no, you aren't out anything, and if they say yes...

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  3. Unfortunately Eric, Katie is right without a PH.D you stand very little chance of getting a job with museums or various other institutes dealing with cataloging and curating entomology collections. Sometimes starting out as a volunteer gains you entry to jobs you would otherwise not be considered for. I know it is difficult to even imagine "giving" your time, when there are bills, rent and other expenses weighing in on you. Perhaps working another unrelated job, and volunteering your time with this group or another institute will end up bringing good things your way. Many volunteers have superior knowledge to the so called "experts". AS many of us know. I can think of many volunteers that I personally know that have a wide range of knowledge that is far superior to any professionals with degrees. In fact they are fast becoming the "go to" people of our region in their respective interests. Sometimes all it takes is a passion in a certain field, the passions feeds the desire for knowledge. Self taught experts have a focused interest and therefor a focused expertise.

    AS far as the volunteer pool running dry in future years because of the need for people of retirement age to also flood the job market is not necessarily a true statement. I am nowhere near retirement age, yet began volunteering 7 years ago, those years of experience proved invaluable and landed me the job I currently have as a naturalist. Now I am in charge of the volunteers, and one of my best volunteers is only 43, again far from retirement age. Many younger people are beginning to understand the importance of volunteering with agencies that they wish to sometime work for. Our local university has a chapter of the wildlife sociiety and the students who belong to the chapter are encouraged to volunteer their time working for local conservation oriented agencies. These kids gain experience, knowledge and opportunities. Don't knock the value of volunteers, after all you are a volunteer of sorts and have an extremely large amount of knowledge to share.
    Most of all don't give up, the right position is out there for you and I have faith you will find it.

  4. On a tangent, but equally relevant: part-timers vs full-timers. The facility at which I now work has a large staff: thirteen (unless I've forgotten someone). And of that, only TWO are full time. Everyone else is hired for 10 to 26 hours. And now the director is talking about adding more staff - by adding another 10 hour position, a 15 hour position, and maybe a 20 hour position. When I look at all the responsibilities I have with my position (one of the two full timers), I cringe - it's too much! When does it make more sense to actually add one or two full time positions to do all the individual jobs these part timers collectively do? Is it really any kind of savings? A dozen or more part time salaries, or two or three full time salaries with benefits? It's enough to make one say "Bah-humbug!"

  5. I have been through this with my mother, she has a double masters and couldnt get hired. Very frustrating for her!! Over qualified they kept saying. Now shes teaching preschool, making well under what she used to, but hey its a job.
    Now onto the volunteers. Not all volunteers are under qualified to do the tasks they are assigned to do. Thats your assumption. I volunteer because I cant work due to a disability. Its either volunteer or drive my husband crazy around the house. I dont have a set schedule which is what prohibits me from working, I cant keep one. We have 2 paid staff where I go and if it werent for the volunteers the place would close. Most of our volunteers are over qualified to be doing what they do there. Of course we have a few that make me want to rip my hair out however they normally dont last very long. So even though most of us dont have a published book like you do Eric, not all volunteers worthless! Thanks to you I have a large amount of bug knowledge to share, and it gets use often! So think about why someone might be a volunteer before you go lashing out at all of them. I know your frustrated, Lord knows I am, my mother was and she was patient and she found a job. Is it her dream job no but it pays the bills.

  6. Thanks to all for the good comments so far. I apologize if it sounded like I am branding volunteers as "inferior." Not so. What troubles me is that we don't (as a society) value such services more, by actually paying people to perform those tasks.