April 10, 2017

People-led research is a sleeping giant, and it might be waking up.  At least, people have been working hard at waking it up.  There are now collaboration platforms for everything including data collection, analysis, product design and development, image identification… the list goes on and on.  Citizen Science projects are booming, and SciStarter is making them easier to find and join.  Cell phones make collaborative data collection easier, and Open Data Kit reduces app development costs for survey-based projects.  Public Lab has pioneered community led technology development, establishing best practices for collaboration online and in person.  And the list goes on.

Slowly but surely, we’re moving to a new reality, much of it driven by technology.   Sooner than we think, we’ll be in a world where sensors are ubiquitous, comparable, of scientific quality, and in the hands of everyday people.  Data sharing will become the norm, so large reference datasets can be built to make the data meaningful.  Contributors will be validated over time, similar to ebay’s buyer/seller ratings system, to improve confidence in the data and establish invested communities.  Satellite, weather, air quality, and related data will be public and accessible anywhere, resulting in near real-time environmental monitoring of every location on the planet.  And the barriers to our scientific history will (finally!) be gone.  Publishing will be fully public and searchable.

But most progress is still driven from the top down by organizations – and ultimately funders.  Do-gooders trying to do good, because good just won’t happen on it’s own (I know, I’m one of them).  Our big goal is that everyone, everywhere is conscious and confident of their ability to engage difficult questions using the tools of science and inquiry.  Specifically that everyone has the capacity, knowledge, and reach to do meaningful science and research regardless of location, class, or education.  Supporting this capacity is the mission of GOSH, and many others in the open science community.

This is not to say people aren’t smart, capable, and inquisitive right now.  Most people use the scientific method every day – in our homes, in our work, with and on our children, out of curiosity or out of necessity.  But an increasing portion of our lives involves things we cannot understand using the standard tools of sensory experience, anecdotal evidence, and intuition.  For those complex problems, we look “up”… to governments, academics, and industry leaders.  People we are supposed to trust, but very often do not.  Technology gives everyone the capacity to tackle more complex problems, but it does not give back the self-awareness that we’re responsible to do so.  

So what does the world look like when the do-gooders and governments and companies all step aside, and instead of looking up we start looking around – to ourselves, our families, and our communities, to both understand and solve our problems?

Well, what happened when the world awoke to the internet?  Cat videos.  Fan fiction.  Desert phone booths.  Countless IRC chatrooms with people you don’t know.  A new use and scope of the word “viral”.  And, of course, lots and lots of sex (no link needed here I think).  People have an insatiable appetite to communicate – that’s the web.  They have that same appetite to understand.  That’s people-led research.  And like the internet, we’ll be slightly embarrassed by what the sum of our collective efforts says about humanity.

So yeah, some of it will be weird… but that’s totally OK.  People-led research will include things like the effect of positive energy on how rice molds and bigfoot studies.  But it could also identify new and unexpected technologies ignored by scientists, or engage in massive, global research projects not possible without thousands or millions of people.  It will sway wildly with popular opinions and headlines and fads.  It will find its way into under-represented communities and into social justice movements.  Maybe it will grow out of biohackerspaces, science shops, or just nucleate everywhere as technology becomes ubiquitous.  Honestly, who knows… but one thing is for sure – it will be very different than most research done today.

But if you want to present research as a non-scientist, just go on the internet, make a web page or youtube channel and post your experiment and findings – right?

Not really.  There are two problems:

There are few resources to build skills among the 99% to produce higher quality work and…

There’s no meritocratic path to take their work seriously if it is done well.

So those webpages and youtube channels are often poor quality and even the good ones fall on deaf ears.  For all the effort put into making a million grad students into good scientists, no one puts effort into training 100 million citizens in a similar way.   Maybe because those 100 million people aren’t getting grants.  Maybe because they’re not producing intellectual property we can capture.  Maybe because we think they are crazy.  Maybe because “their” problems aren’t “our” problems.  Maybe because their problems don’t create products and generate revenues.  Or maybe doing good science is just too darn complicated unless its your profession and full time job.

The motivation for Our-Sci is that 100 million people can and should do science and research.  We want to help communities do the hard work of answering questions and solving problems in a scientifically rigorous way.  Instead of rejecting, ignoring, or downplaying their work, we believe that humanity will gain a massive ally if everyone is allowed to play the game.  This isn’t to say that the rules of the game will change – high quality and comparable data, scientifically rigorous experiments, peer review, and reproducibility remain the targets to strive for.  But the players, the focus, and the culture will change.  In some ways for the better, and probably in some ways for the worse.  In either case, people-led research will be a radically honest representation of humanity, just as the internet is today.  And we believe the world will be better for it.

Personally, I can’t wait to see the giant wake up.