Did Wyoming Really Just Outlaw Citizen Science?

May 14, 2015 | 2:23 pm
Amy Freitag
Research Associate, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

I first heard about the new Wyoming law #SF0012 through the Slate article summarizing it as a criminalization of citizen science. There’s a real danger that it could be interpreted and implemented that way, but let’s try and give Wyoming the benefit of the doubt for a minute. The text of the law only requires that scientists (citizen or otherwise) acquire written or verbal permission from landowners for collecting data on their land. It goes on to define what “data” means, including photographs in a fairly wide definition, and “collecting” as taking data with the intention of turning it over to a state or federal agency. It also defines trespassing and outlines the consequences for those who fail to receive permission. In short: the data collector could go to jail and their data will not be admissible in legal or policy proceedings.

At the core, the law re-hashes a fairly common definition of trespassing. The key part of the law that’s new is that the data won’t be admissible in court and the act of turning them over to federal or state agencies will make you an outlaw. Part of me thinks that data collectors, including citizen science groups, should be asking permission to go on someone’s land. This is both to keep ethics at the forefront of our scientific endeavors and for the personal safety of scientists (ranchers are known to carry shotguns, after all).

The other part of me, however, puts the law in the full context of which it was written: as a means of enabling ranchers to not fence their cows out of streams and never have watchdogs checking on the E. coli public health impacts of those cattle swimming in downstream residents’ drinking water. In these cases, offending ranchers would never let a scientist on their property to take water samples, and a trespassing hiker might be the best way to collect data on water quality in a privately-held landscape. In this case, the offenses of the trespassing should certainly not negate the evidence of another crime. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

The law was clearly written to damp the efforts of water quality citizen watchdog groups, as evidenced by their definition of “collect”. Science can and does happen outside of agency collaborations—and these kinds of citizen science projects theoretically can still happen under this law provided the data is going to academic or nonprofit scientists for analysis. In these cases, it also would matter less if the data collected can’t be used in court. It’s only when the data in question uncovers some other crime—like water quality violations—that the scientist should be concerned about being an outlaw. However, this distinctly severs the link between citizen science and management applications, which is one of the strongest means of empowerment that participation in citizen science can provide.

So for all of you Wyoming residents collecting water quality data, your best recourse for the moment might be to obtain permission from federal landholders to test the water directly downstream of the offending farms. It’s entirely possible you can still get the data necessary to bring a lawsuit to fruition. And to landholders out there – be open about giving permission for science to happen on your land. It’s for a good cause, and that’s a better, healthier Wyoming.


Several folks have pointed out how much this law will also (and perhaps primarily) benefit oil and gas industry. The same concerns and thoughts apply here, as the legal mechanisms are similar—namely, the Clean Water Act. It’s just a very different set of pollutants, and ones that are typically harder for citizen scientists to analyze themselves. Corporate entities are also way harder to acquire permission from (or even find the contact person in order to ask), making the law even more challenging in mining contexts. Silver lining here is that the Bureau of Land Management actually owns a good deal of the nation’s mineral resources, which are contracted out to oil and gas firms, so there may be an additional avenue with sympathetic ears in which to gain permission to access those lands.

Note: This post was originally published at Southern Fried Science.