This blog is collecting positions and reflections of open science in practice. Furthermore it is hosting the syllabus and teaching materials for the course: Open Science - the better science? at the University of Vienna, Austria, Department of Social Studies of Science and Technology. Comments are very welcome, please reveal your identity.
January 6, 2016
Science? Yes, we can!
This slogan was not only used by “Bob the Builder” or Barak Obama during his campaign, it implicit describes a new
way of science. Everyone is able to do research. Citizen Science is obviously a
new trend in research and is used and communicated as new way of science. We
all can participate and contribute to science; it is no longer a very exclusive
activity of some nerds in white coats. Science is open to people like you and
me. But, to be honestly, is this really a new thing? Is it just an invention of some creative marketing guys and a relatively easy
approach to distract attention from major problems of science and society? The
overall title of this currently very popular phenomenon “Citizen Science” is
used for programs, strategic papers and much more. This blog article summarizes
some aspects of a discussion a class of STS scholars had in December 2015. How
can we classify Citizen Science contributions and what is missing? What are the
drivers and what motivates to participate and which problems can occur? I will
put some spots on these questions and give my opinion on some aspects.
If it is
not a new trend, why is citizen science so prominent in all publications,
discussions and strategic documents? And is it a problem if the dialogue
between science community and society is now new labeled and sold as an
invention of last decade? I want to explain, why I am on one hand so critical
on citizen science and why on the other hand I am very happy about these
developments. First I want to underline by giving some examples that the
involvement of citizen in science activities is definitely not new, nevertheless the term entered the Oxford Dictionary in 2014. It goes
back in the late 18-hundreds and was very popular these days. In this time it
was popular to have own observations, exchange of knowledge with like-minded
people and generating high quality of documentations which was used by experts
as well as by other interested citizen. Most of these historical examples are
observations of nature and wildlife, space and weather. There was no real
incentive than the own curiosity and satisfaction to be an expert on a specific
field; sometimes it was an honor to find a new species or a specimen of a
seldom creature. I can understand that curiosity is the driver for the majority
of participants. After both world wars the society steps more and more back and
leaves the field of research to the experts. New technologies and platforms
like social media generate a renaissance of these motivations and during the
last years it becomes popular to post every activity in the web and motivate
others to do the same. The more an activity is like a game people are attracted
(c) W. Schneider
projects of Citizen Science are working along the same scheme but with the use of
new technologies it is simpler to support the activities. To hacking of genomes
is very exciting and is seen together with other unknown field like space or
deep-sea. We all know it is out there but only a few have knowledge about
details. Delfanti (2011) described in his article the problems and motivations
to participate in a bio-hacking project. I personally find the definition
hacker a bit problematically because hacking has the notion of something
illegal. Maybe some persons feel attracted by this word. They can to do
something outside the traditional, socially given boundaries without committing
a real crime. But I won’t stuck in definitions, better leave the definition as
it is and look a bit closer to the motivations. The genetic code is still a
mystery and we know only a few things about the functionality and mechanism
behind the DNA. To solve a piece of the puzzle is for sure a challenge what
makes more sense than having your Sunday Sudoku solved in minimum time. I have
no experience with cracking DNA codes but I know how satisfying it is to solve
a Sudoku. It would be a small step to shift from a challenge without a social
impact to a challenging activity where I can contribute to one of the grand
questions. What exactly these questions are cannot be answered in one sentence
but I think there is no clear definition what is really relevant for the
society. This spectrum goes from the mentioned DNA code over the exploration of
space to the counting of animals, dead or alive. To classify participation we
can define the first group of people: “calculators”, they provide volunteer
computing, brainpower and time to generate a social benefit. Coming back to my
headline, everybody can do this depending on personal interests and
capabilities. Yes, we can…
(c) W. Schneider
article of Delfanti (2011) another important aspect was pointed out. While
traditional science takes place at research institutions the citizen science
community works on different places. Sometimes a laboratory with very expensive
equipment is substituted by a kitchen with some household machinery, far away
from professional tools. Can a blender, an oven and some pots really be the
basis of science? I think it is not always necessary to have 100% perfect tools
if the method or the approach is not fitting to the experiment. We face the
problem that the budgets on research are more and more cut down and the
infrastructure becomes more expensive than ever. Not to mention the conditions
how young researchers work and how they are paid in comparison to other fields.
Therefore it is an existing problem that citizen science is not always a warm
welcomed option to traditional research approaches. Researchers will argue that
here occurs a competition and a reduction of expected quality in research. As
long as citizen science is not influencing other fields of science nobody will
care about this activities. But this doesn’t happen. There is always an idea of
commercialization. If someone provides DIY kits for some experiments they will think
about selling tools, samples, complete sets or simply books “how to…”. This is
not a real threat for science but opens a door in this direction. I am
convinced that most of the (semi-) professional providers and platforms have
more or less an interest in earning money. Gen sequencing platforms like
23andme.com are using data from the curios people. As mentioned in the first
argument I am sure that curiosity is the primary cause of interest. To continue
the classification scheme these people will count as the “makers”, doing DIY
research. And they can… because there are enough offers to do this!
first group is volunteering and the second group is more on the doing side I
will describe in this paragraph the third group of citizen science which is
called the “sensors”. They act as observers and are from my point of view the
oldest group in this context. Bird viewing, plant counting, weather observation
and many other examples need a lot of activities spread over time and place.
Researchers are depending on these activities and have a benefit in their
projects. Over the years the methods have changed only in minor details like
how the observations are reported. New electronic devices (such as smartphones
and tablet computers) are able to have an easy access to databases and transmit
data directly without time consuming transmissions and different formats.
Additional information e.g. position, time, pictures, temperature, etc. can be
combined with other information to generate an added value. But in principle is
this the same way of participating as it was 150 years ago. The social media
generate extra motivation and awareness on a specific topic. Some current
projects work with social media to share observations and inform others about
new information and results. We can argue this is a new development – but I
keep my standpoint – it is not new, only the technology changed and can be used
for better marketing. And again, we can… because we have the technology and the
choice what, where and when we act as observers.
not least there is a fourth type of citizen science contribution. They are
called “analysers” and work as crowd. The main difference to the third group
(sensors) is the interpretation of data. Existing observations like space
images are selected and the crowd can do the huge effort of interpreting the
more or less obvious pattern ore structures in the pictures. This cannot be
done by software; you need special skills to identify relevant patterns. And
finally the fourth “we can…!” is possible but not that easy than the other
three. But give it a try, it is worth of it.
Who is missing?
We have now
a classification of possible citizen science contribution but our class was not
happy with the completeness of this list. What is missing? At the beginning of
the value chain we have a lack of generating questions. Who is asking the (new)
questions, which are not discussed before? I think this is a relevant field but
should not be given into the hand of some nerdy people. Not without
accompanying discussion with researchers, policy makers and other stakeholders.
It sounds so nice if we ask the people out there what is relevant. But I am
afraid about the sample of answers which can be easily come from the loudest
but not wisest corner. The internet is today full of so called experts with new
methods to find energy, health and happiness. Most of their statements are simple not correct and are denying simple principles of physics, chemistry or medicine. There is no
perpetum mobile or healing with good vibrations if you really work hard on it.
Most cases turn out as fraud. So how can we distinguish these research
approaches and ideas from the real good ideas and inventions? If there would be
a simple answer, I will not write it in a blog. I would sell this for a fortune
and spend all the money for research. Sorry, to be not serious but the problem
is multi-dimensional and fills hundreds of pages of strategic documents. The
Austrian ministry of Research has had several attempts to involve people in
this question, the result was frustrating. Most of the ideas were simply weird
or impossible and only a few ideas can be counted as an interesting topic. It
was surprising that these contributions were not from real lay people but from
researcher looking for more attention on their research field.
classification of citizen science misses another group – who is evaluating at
the end of a project or a research activity the results? I think this is much
more sensitive than asking questions. A dull question can be identified and
sorted out. If we talk about results of citizen science and other research
projects we face the problem of bias in the evaluation. Can personal interest
or a specific type of mindset in the broader society modify the evaluation? I mentioned
above the DNA cracking experiments. In Austria is it common understanding that
a modified plant cannot be cultured and planted out. Citizen science will be
accepted by the community and by the society as long as it happens in a cozy
environment and doesn’t hit some sensitive issues.
No "we can..." at all?
have now two fields opened where we cannot easily agree on the “we can…!”
statement. It is complicated and there is no real willingness to open it to a
broader society. We cannot. Not yet because we are not ready for this kind of
participation. I mentioned the citizen science movement is not new. Therefore it
was easy to label existing forms of participation and the use of new
technologies as a new approach for science. It was not a real problem and not a
real effort to define citizen science as the new way of research. But if we are
serious about involving the society we have to change cultures and behaviors to
allow asking and evaluating. Science is much more than doing some funny
experiments and counting rare species. It is based on knowledge which is the
fundament of every discussion, activity and research. Combined with ethics and
legal issues we define a framework which exclude some very open minded ideas.
Privacy, protection of rights and other issues must be considered and not
everything what is possible should be elaborated.
(c) W. Schneider
So, what do we need?
We need a
lot of education starting in the primary schools to teach children the
principles of research without destroying their natural curiosity. This can be
done in class or in institutions where young people get in touch with science.
We send our kids to sports and music lessons teach them in culture and whatever
– but barely anything is provided to have a permanent education in science.
Why? I cannot give a clear answer but have the feeling that citizen science
could be the key for more awareness and consciousness for research to change
the culture in our society. As the example of the biohackers show – it is a
very positive way of knowledge production and is driven by curiosity and fun.
Especially for Kids is the game factor highly relevant. If it makes fun and
sense it would attract them later as adults and they will contribute to citizen
science. I am convinced some day we also ask questions and evaluate results as
citizen. Independently how we call it in the future – someday we can…
Born in 1969, I work in the field of research since 1998, currently as strategic advisor, for science communication and science festivals. I am an alumni of BOKU and hold a master degree in civil engineering. Since 2014 I am a student at the STS institute, University of Vienna. Find me on twitter: @WaSch_DC References Delfanti, A. (2011). Hacking genomes. The ethics of open and rebel biology. International Review of Information Ethics, 15(09), 52-57.