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Uncovering environmental problems could get you a year in a Wyoming jail

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Is a new statute a harmless trespassing measure, or a way to keep scientists' noses away from malfeasance?

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Citizen scientists are playing an increasingly important role in experiments, but there may be a place where certain experiments are less than welcome: Wyoming.

new law passed earlier this year criminalizes the collection of data on "open land" if the collector doesn't receive permission in advance and eventually shares that data with the government. As Slate points out, the move sounds like a modest proposal until almost any of those terms — "collection," "data," or "open land" — are defined. And although other states have passed similar laws, Wyoming's seems especially broad: photographs are specifically covered by the law, while the land could mean any place outside of a town or city.

One example: under the law, collection of data could mean taking soil samples to demonstrate an environmental problem in a state park — an act that could be seen as a violation of the law if shared with the government, and ultimately inadmissible in a lawsuit.

Why would the Wyoming government want that? At Slate, Justin Pidot, citing a recent case where citizen scientists found high levels of E. coli in streams, argues that it's a way for the government to crack down on environmental dissent. You can either keep that information to yourself, or risk a year in jail.

Some are skeptical that it's necessarily a bad thing for researchers to be asking permission before conducting research, professional or otherwise, or that the law will have an effect on most citizen science programs. But the problem is the potential for abuse: if evidence of a crime is uncovered, it's one more hurdle to accountability.