by Pamela Gay

How we do science is changing.

I came up with that opening sentence when I was first asked to do this blog several weeks ago. The next sentences have changed over and over, as my focus has changed from how technologies are changing science, to how the funding crisis is changing science, to how citizen science is changing science. … Over and over I changed my theme, until I found myself 24 hours past my deadline, with a bouncing Skype icon reminding me I needed to do this, and an empty page sitting in front of me. Unsure what to say, I decided to empty my water heater in a long drawn out shower, and as the warm water turned cold I realized, all these things — technology changes, funding cuts, the advancement of citizen science — this is all part of a whole, and all of these things together tell the story of how science is changing.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, scientists were the pets of the rich and royal. Men like Galileo scientifically sang for their supper by showcasing great discoveries (like the telescope) to those who might be their sponsors. Kepler worked for kings, Copernicus resided in a castle where he worked in economics while imagining epicycles, and the Herschels went the route of working for royalty while they catalogued comets, nebula and other things. This was the way of things: if you wer smart enough you found a patron who funded your research and only asked that you intellectually stimulate and potentially bring profit to their household.

Over time, as the University system has grown, more and more intellectuals and academics have made their name will primarily paid to teach. Over time, as war efforts and massive governmental projects have needed new discoveries, governmental agencies have grown up to fund specific fields, including our sciences. Astronomy has continued to enjoy private support, but over the years our field has grown beyond what the rich and wealthy are willing to pay for, and we have come to rely upon our governments to see our scientific strivings as something worth funding as it will advance each of our societies.

Those once upon a time scientists of the past would pass their days doing ever increasingly intricate experiments. They often worked alone (save for their retinue of students) or perhaps with one or two colleagues. When experiments were made, no piece of data went ignored: it was simply too hard to get information and once the results were had, they were published.

Over time, collaborations have grown as our technological capacity has increased. Massive projects ranging from the first great observatories of the ground – Pukova, Lowell. Mount Wilson, Palomar – to the modern rovers, probes, and observatories of space, have each required ever-increasing communities of scientists to come together to collect the data and search it for meaning.

Today, technology has created a flood of data, and this overabundance of information is forcing us to combine our efforts as we work on shared data sets, while allowing us to do more statistically interesting astronomy then we've ever been able to do in the past. Spacecraft like The Solar Dynamic Orbiter send back hundreds of gigabytes of information every day. A scientist working in his lab can no longer analyze all the data and find all the answers hiding in the ones and zeros. We must filter, and we must archive images while hoping someday someone will be able to do the science we lack the time and human resources to do.

It has often been said, we are in a golden age of astronomy because of this new technology.

Here is the rub: At the same time the technology is allowing so many great things to be studied, the global economic crisis is making it harder for us to find the funding to employ people to do research with all this amazing technology. Government cutbacks have triggered the closure of institutions all around the world, as astronomers from Italy to Portugal to the USA have one by one faced furloughs, institutional closures, and (for those lucky enough to keep their jobs) ever-increasing workloads.

But just as technology has allowed more and more data to be obtained, it is also provided ready access to this data for more and more people.

Backyard observers, from William Herschel to David Leavy, have consistently made great discoveries in astronomy. Today, being part of observational astronomy doesn't even require a telescope because there is open access to many different databases of information. From the Planetary Data System run by NASA to the Canadian Astronomical Data Center, content abounds just waiting to be explored.

The professional astronomy community may not have the human resources necessary to make every great discovery that the data allows to be made, but if we all work together, working in professional – citizen collaborations, we can at least accomplish a whole lot more.

Programs like CosmoQuest, which I am proud to direct, work hard to provide a virtual research facility that is designed to provide the public all the types of opportunities that a researcher at a top research center would have access to. From seminars, to scientific collaborations, to forums for collaborating (and chatting), to classes: CosmoQuest is a little bit of everything, and all of it together paints a picture of scientific discovery.

We are working to create a new world order where scientists find people in the general population – regular Joe's rather than regular royalty – to make their science possible not through donations of funding, but through donations of thoughtfulness. We ask you to come click through images, mark craters, and help us be part of mapping our solar system and the universe beyond. (We will gladly take your money, but would rather have your mind.)

Just as the world is slowly evolving from being run by royal dynasties to be run by coalition governments that arise through democracy, science is changing from being the toy of the rich to being the past time of the proletariat.

Science is something everyone can do, and it is something everyone must do if we are to make every discovery that can be made in the data our modern technologies allowing us to acquire.

How we do science has changed. I don't think the funding situation has changed for the better, but I'm grateful for my technology, and I'm grateful for my collaborations that span the world and allow me to work with anyone who simply has the time to look, learn, and realize the universe truly is ours to discover.

Where would you like to explore today? Come help me map our solar system at


HeadShot PGayDr Pamela L. Gay is an astronomer, podcaster and writer. She runs the CosmoQuest virtual research facility and cohosts the Astronomy Cast podcast. When not helping  people to learn and do astronomy, she rides her horse Ben.


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