What does the future of science look like?
About a year ago, I was asked this question. My response then was: Transdisciplinary collaboration. Researchers from a variety of domains—biology, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, economics, law—all coming together, using inputs from each specialized area to generate the best comprehensive solutions to society’s more persistent problems. Indeed, it appears as if I was on the right track, as more and more academic research departments, as well as industries, are seeing the value in this type of partnership.
Now let’s take this a step further. Not only do I think we will be relying on inputs from researchers and experts from multiple domains to solve scientific problems, but I see society itself getting involved on a much more significant level as well. And I don’t just mean science awareness. I’m talking about actually participating in the research itself. Essentially, I see a huge boom in the future for Citizen Science.
What are Citizen Scientists?
Citizen Scientists are non-scientists who contribute data and/or analysis to aid in scientific studies, or hobbyists, often referred to as “DIYers”, conducting their own scientific studies outside of a formal research institute or university. This is usually done in their own homes, or in publicly set up “DIY Labs” such as BioCurious, a Bay Area BioTech hackspace.
With the Open Science Summit coming up in less than a week (I know! It’s almost here!), I thought this would be the perfect time to illustrate just how big of a deal Citizen Science is to the future of scientific progress.
The Key Role of Technology
‘Citizen Science’ has been around since the days of Darwin and Einstein, but today, modern technology has allowed for worldwide participation in projects and rapid analysis of data, making it a more streamlined, widely collaborative initiative. Citizen Science has seen a rise in popularity especially in the last several years, gaining traction in more diverse audiences, and utilizing the newest technological tools for outreach and data analysis.
The organization ScienceForCitizens.net, for example, has a website where you can find out what types of projects are going on that you can get involved in, as well as upload your own citizen science project that you are seeking participation for. Participants upload their own data contribution, then they can go back to see the recorded results of everyone involved—no waiting a year or more for peer reviewed journals to release data. Science in action, right there. Practically instant gratification!
Smart phone apps like Project Noah—which allows people to discover and document local wildlife data, then contribute those findings to on-going research being done by scientists—are setting the standard for practical, fun, and easy-to-adopt Citizen Science apps that can radically increase the amount of public interest and participation in science. This is truly a time when every person, no matter their educational background or training, can experience the wonder and beauty of the scientific method.
Even the government is starting to catch on. In fact, NASA just announced that they are releasing oodles of data for the public to access and analyze at will:
We’re excited today to announce the launch of our Data API for data.nasa.gov, the collaborative online database of NASA datasets we launched in August. The data.nasa.gov API allows a machine-readable interface to return metadata from the site organized by category, tag, date, or search term. We’re hoping this allows new and creative visualizations of the data resources NASA provides to the public. Additionally, it is a learning experience for us as we work to expand transparency, participation, and collaboration at NASA through new uses of technology.
How cool is that?! Wicked cool. If gamers can find a potential treatment for AIDS by folding proteins, I can’t wait to see what the public can do with NASA’s data.
New Kinds of Outreach
I already mentioned the Internet and smart phone apps as ways of utilizing modern technology to allow citizens to participate in science projects, but what about filming a ‘movie’ trailer to advertise your project? Check this out—a scientist is trying to get participation for a study, so he filmed a trailer to upload to YouTube, in order to recruit participants. Brilliant. Could you see doing something like this for grant proposals?
Some have predicted that learning via web video—from e-learning phenomenons like Khan Academy and the hugely popular free online courses Stanford just launched in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Databases—is poised to be the new medium of choice for the future of education.
I have to agree.
With web video, you have access to the entire world, with one 2 minute video clip. Demonstration, conveying body language, and showing facial expressions all adds to the experience, bringing us one step closer to reality, but from anywhere on the globe. Even real-time collaboration is now possible over video chat with applications like Google+ Hangouts (which integrates Google docs right into the hangout feature and allows screen-sharing and real-time modification) and the much-anticipated Hangout Academy, which is geared as a professional (or personal) building and sharing tool for limitless collaboration.
Think of the power in outreach and communication we have now, that was non-existent in Darwin’s time. I wonder how much quicker his theory of evolution would have come to fruition had the power of crowdsourcing ideas and social media tools been available to him? Blows my mind.
A New Model of ‘Scientist’
There’s another reason why I think we are going to see a rise in Citizen Science: our entire model of education and what it means to be a ‘trained professional’ is shifting. There’s a hell of a lot of resistance from the status quo—which makes it difficult and inconvenient for rapid progress—but it isn’t enough to stop it from happening. Even if society is kicking and screaming, we are still headed in that direction, like it or not.
When the university system and the current PhD paradigm was invented, it was a different time. For the majority of the world, going to a university to study under a mentor was pretty much one of the only ways to gain access to those volumes of published research, equipment, or like-minded individuals from whom you could learn. If you wanted to study advanced topics, or apprentice under someone famous to learn from their expertise, you needed to go to a university.
But things are different now.
Technology allows us access to some of the leading minds of our age, with a few clicks of the mouse. You could be living in Uganda and still participate in a Stanford University course, right alongside students in Mexico and Hawaii. Study and discussion groups form on social networks like facebook and Google+, making proximity to a university campus nearly irrelevant in order to meet other students and benefit from valuable peer-to-peer discussions. With the world’s information available on the web, and with all of these advances in technology allowing for rapid data sharing and collaboration, how much value is there in the Ivory Tower?
We are becoming a society of autodidacts, with information at our fingertips 24/7. Citizen Science is a natural consequence of that. Have an interesting scientific inquiry? Get on the web and investigate it. Learn from the millions of sources out there. Crowdsource some ideas, generate some hypotheses. Have discussions with others. Make a plan. Get your equipment. The scientific method is in-progress.
Science is free for all to explore. Why waste time jumping through bureaucratic hoops when you can begin investigating what you want, when you want? Need to fund your research? Crowdsourced methods of funding, such as Kickstarter, are becoming more popular for these types of endeavors. Instead of 100 scientists chasing the same grant, why not go to the public and let them fund what they think is valuable? I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the future.
As technology advances and more tools are made available, science will inevitably become more open. Society just won’t stand for paywalls and red tape when there are 1000 ways to get around it, while still making scientific progress. If we want rapid progress, rapid advancement and rapid innovation, we need to allow and promote openness. The future is already here—might as well get on board and enjoy the ride!