Citizen Science where there are no citizens: participation and exclusion in Antarctic science

This post is part of Bill of Health’s symposium on Critical Studies Citizen Science in Biomedical Research. Challenging the lay-professional divide in portrayals of citizen science, Vanessa Heggie examines a case study of an expedition to the Antarctic in the 1950s, where participants were at once researchers, research subjects, experts, and technicians. Background on the symposium is here. You can call up all of the symposium contributions already published by clicking here.

By Vanessa Heggie

The Antarctic environment poses plenty of challenges for scientists, but for those who need human participants there’s the additional problem of finding and recruiting ‘citizen scientists’.  With no indigenous residents, the residents of the Antarctic are a carefully selected population, most of whom are already doing some form of scientific work and juggling multiple identities and roles.  Radio operators take readings for meteorologists, geologists volunteer as guinea pigs for physiologists, and botanists collect rocks. There isn’t a clear divide between ‘scientist’ and ‘lay participant’; often human subjects, whether they’re collecting data or acting as human guinea-pigs, understand the principles of experimental design, and are able to give feedback about the experiment itself, not just the data generated.  At what point do citizen scientists become experimental collaborators? And who gets left out of these relationships?

Hidden Figures

The first ever overland crossing of Antarctica took place between 1955 and 1958; this was the Commonwealth TransAntarctic Expedition (TAE), led by the explorer (Sir) Vivian Fuchs, and it included a form of citizen science study. Dr Allan Rogers, the team doctor, created a data collection experiment to examine whether explorers became acclimatized to cold; the TAE team completed detailed record cards during the crossing, recording how cold they felt, what they were wearing, what they were doing, and other details such as their medical records and the weather.

So much data was generated that it proved extremely hard to analyse it with the tools of the early 1960s; it was not until Rogers got a grant from the US Air Force to hire a human ‘computer’ that the report on cold acclimatisation could be published.  As the recent movie (and book) Hidden Figures has emphasized, a great deal of statistical and mathematical work was done by women in the middle of the 20th century, and this Antarctic science was no different – Rogers hired recent mathematics graduate Mrs RJ Sutherland who wrote the computer program that analysed the relationships between clothing, temperature, activity, and so on.  It’s easy for the ‘routine’ work of science to be forgotten, in favor of the drama of key discoveries, or the heroism of exploration; but this leads us to overlook the roles played by women, or non-white participants.  Antarctica – not least because of Fuchs’ resistance to female explorers – was a country with an almost entirely male population until the 1970s.

Scientific studies can end up excluding groups because of their gender, ethnicity, or educational level, not deliberately, but because the population they are able to reach is not a representative one.

Lay Experts

Allan Rogers also organised a series of metabolic experiments while he was in Antarctica in the late 1950s.  These involved persuading volunteers to wear the ‘integrating motor pneumotachograph’ or IMP, which had been designed by researchers at the National Institute for Medical Research in the UK.  Rather more invasive than equipment currently used in data-generating citizen science projects, such as pedometers or heart rate monitors, the IMP was a full face mask attached to a backpack containing a battery and a sampling unit, which collected breath samples. (see an image here).

The IMP had been designed for and tested first on military personnel in the UK, so in the Antarctic Rogers not only got a lot of data about metabolism, but also detailed feedback on how well the system worked – with his human guinea pigs pointing out how the design of the machine interfered with their own research, or failed at low temperatures.  One of Rogers’ subjects was geo-physicist Geoffrey Pratt, who realised how much he used his sense of smell and taste during his work – which was hampered by the mask – and who pointed out that even though the IMP was quite small, working space in the Antarctic was cramped, and the backpack still got in the way.  The mask also prevented Pratt from talking to colleagues, and partly because of this Rogers ended up working as a ‘geologists’ mate’, helping Pratt with his geology, while Pratt in turn helped Rogers with his physiology.

Most of the posts so far in this series have pointed out that the ‘citizens’ of citizen science can do more than generate data or do basic analysis as a ‘human computer’; depending on how one defines a pool of ‘citizens’, participants could help improve experimental design, even become full co-participants in research

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