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Thoughts on Open Innovation: The Rebirth of the Citizen Scientist

This is the section in a chapter I co-wrote and edited with friends from the Open Science group of the Open Knowledge Foundation. The chapter is part of the insightful discussion that the Open Forum Academy (OFA) initiated earlier this year, and I am very glad to have been part of it. The chapter, entitled « Bottom-Up Creation of Open Scientific Knowledge », is part of OFA’s second book, « Thoughts on Open Innovation ». Enjoy the read!

The rebirth of the citizen scientist

In the recent decade, the term ‘citizen science’ has emerged to define public involvement in genuine research projects. Synonym labels such as ‘crowd-sourced science,’ or ‘networked science’ actually represent a new make-up for an old idea: back in 1982, science theoretician Feyerabend advocated the “democratization of science.” Going more decades backwards in time, Thomas Jefferson used to envision weather stations operated by volunteers as a means for people to be informed and educated thus engaging into self-governance, a dynamics that is currently happening for real.

This Jeffersonian idea illustrates one of the basic and most crucial issues with science as it is currently performed (i.e., through research within official institutions): its isolation. Contrastingly, citizen science operates – by design – free of the constraints inherent to such strongly formalized places. Citizen science thus not only relocates science, but it also fosters its growth in the mainstream of society. Non-professionals join professionals, thus co-creating knowledge that makes science an integral part of our daily lives and shared human culture.

Numerous examples can be quoted, each bringing its unique colour and shape to the picturesque landscape of citizen science: from birdwatchers illustrating how times of nesting shift as a consequence of climate change to disaster management, from mapping roadkill accidents to producing one’s fluorescent yoghurt at home. These projects illustrate a shift in public engagement in science: from citizens being solely data collectors to data analysts, visualisers and generators of new hypotheses. The hacker and DIY movements have widely contributed to the emergence of a true citizen science, i.e. one that fully explores human curiosity in a non-professional context.

Citizen science is in its infancy yet its popularity grows exponentially as the concept is modular enough to reach the humanities and social sciences (HSS), generally overlooked by both professionals from the so-called “hard” sciences, and citizens. HSS are studies of human nature at large. They encounter the same issues as the “hard” sciences: popularization and communication, policy questions, and a wide range of ethical concerns. Additionally and similarly, HSS have particular theoretical traditions, methodological orientations, and critical interests. The recent surge of citizen science, greatly assisted by information and communication technologies, thus allows reconsideration of the somewhat artificial categorizations of science domains and naturally involves trans- and interdisciplinarity in scientific practise.

These considerations indicate that one does not need a ten-person lab, multimillion-dollar grants and caffeine-intoxicated PhDs in order to perform brilliant science. Citizen systems of participation aimed at collective problem-solving bring, however, two crucial questions: Is citizen science capable of producing reliable data? What guarantees do we have that it is ethical science?

Engaging huge numbers of citizens in a research project means that massive input is generated. Indeed, volunteers already collect data for scientific projects: how reliable is this? Two decades ago, the USA introduced an amendment prohibiting volunteer-collected data to be used in the US National Biological Survey. In the case of a community-based bird species diversity survey, the estimated number of birds correlated with the changes in numbers of observers. Such examples contribute to a stigma associated with citizen science data, which is sometimes labelled ‘incompetent’ or ‘biased.’ In a recent piece, John Gollan argues the opposite: “a growing body of literature shows that data collected by citizens are comparable to those of professional scientists.” Although data-integrity issues can occur, Gollan highlights an important message: “it’s just a matter of honing in on those particular issues and addressing them if necessary. This can be through training to improve skill sets or calibrating data where possible.”

The second question that springs to mind when opening scientific practice to non-professionals is ethics. Many have voiced concerns about dubious ethical frameworks in various citizen science projects. The project that caused recent kerfuffle was uBiome, a project to sequence human genome entirely supported through crowdfunding. Indeed, research ethics are not something to play with: thus, every project dealing with human subjects requires the review and approval of an independent committee – generally referred to as Institutional Review Board (IRB) – prior to its start. The uBiome citizen science project was thoroughly criticized for seeking IRB review of their protocols only after the crowdfunding campaign was completed. A similarly strict review framework is de rigueur when a research project involves animal subjects. In a recent piece for Scientific American, professional scientist and citizen science advocate Caren Cooper called for community answers to ethical questions as the boundary between hobby practitioners and citizen scientists is too blurry to be defined, and so are the cases in which participants need to be invited to follow official ethics protocols. As also exemplified by numerous reactions from open and citizen science enthusiasts, IRB approval can be a hurdle for citizen scientists.

Cooper’s call-out to the community of both professional and citizen scientists does echo a widely shared concern: is there someone – and if so, who? – to provide oversight of DIYbio/citizen science practices? By design, both professional and citizen scientists need to urgently address this particular and foundational issue. None of us can continue standing passive when a threat is posed to citizen science. It fosters our common culture of curiosity and bridges gaps between people whose personal aims and leisure-time activities converge on a desire to advance research and improve human welfare and communities.

 
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Publié par le 25 mai 2013 dans Research, Science

 

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University of Geneva hosts Citizen Cyberscience on PLoS Blogs ‘CitizenSci’

Citizen Cyberscience was at the honour at the University of Geneva on April 22-23, 2013. I wrote a brief sum-up on it for PLoS Blogs ‘Citizen Science’.

A short time ago, I attended a two-day Citizen Cyberscience workshop at the University of Geneva. As much as the USA and the UK are happy having a vibrant community of citizen scientists, such initiatives in many other European countries are still stuttering. A dedicated workshop in one such country was thus even more exciting. I was there not only because of my interest in the topic but also on behalf of my current position within the EU-funded Citizen Cyberlab’s Synthetic Biology section.

The goal of the workshop was both to get everyone updated on the latest developments of tools for actual citizen science doing and “to work in teams to design and implement a first prototype of a citizen cyberscience project”. The first day was dedicated to talks, and the second day – to hands-on activities. As I recently launched the ‘Open & Citizen Science’ workgroup at the Open Knowledge Foundation France, I am pretty much interested into concrete tools I can use to get people involved into actual projects. Thus, there were two talks of special interest for me: the presentations of Epicollect and Crowdcrafting.

[read more on PLoS Blogs]
[View the story « #CitizenCyberscience workshop in Geneva » on Storify]

 
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Publié par le 23 mai 2013 dans Research, Science

 

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Retraction Watch suffers DMCA bugs*

*Ok, trolling away, DMCA itself is a bug.

The background: Retraction Watch is one of the must-follow resources on the web for anyone who is interested in scientific publishing. The blog, maintained and nurtured by Ivan Oransky (Reuters health editor) and Adam Marcus (science journalist and managing editor of Anesthesiology News), is the place for keeping abreast of retractions and corrections in scientific and medical journals. Recently, the blog editors woke up to find out that 10 of the posts have been taken down.

What happened? Apparently, some firm from India copied these 10 posts — relating to Anil Potti, a cancer researcher whose career is imploding as 19 of his papers were already retracted, — then claimed them and filed a DMCA takedown notice. Consequently, the posts were pulled off by WordPress from Retraction Watch… and haven’t been restored thus far.

 
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Publié par le 6 février 2013 dans Miscellaneous, Research, Science

 

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Petitioning Obama: Build a Death Star!

This is my #LulzOfDaDay 🙂 Background: the Obama administration provides a web platform — We the People, — for citizens to send a petition to the President, and « if a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response. » Among the most popular petitions, you can find one calling for free access to scientific publications arising from taxpayer-funded research or the one asking for the removal of District Attorney Ortiz for overreach in Aaron Swartz case.

Star Wars Cookies, by Betsy Weber on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

Star Wars Cookies, by Betsy Weber on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

And here comes one of the most important petitions to Obama ever: « Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016. » Launched on Nov 14, 2012 it has gathered nearly 35,000 signatures thus far. The rationale:

By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star, the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense.

This makes you laugh? Come on, don’t go medieval on this concerned citizen. The Obama administration took his demand into consideration as it « shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense. » Unfortunately, a Death Star isn’t on the horizon:

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Publié par le 3 février 2013 dans Miscellaneous, Research

 

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#ArsenicLife reviews leaked

You certainly remember the allegedly revolutionary discovery of a bacterium using arsenic instead of phosphate to build its nucleic acids. Arsenic is a poison, and phosphate is mandatory for life. Thus, this alien, « the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic » as presented during the NASA HQs press conference, was supposed to be an alien constituting a paradigm shift, etc. — you remember the hype. The alien that wasn’t one as I already summed up critics shortly after the paper was published (ici en français). The story received an incredible media coverage as well as a huge number of comments from other fellow scientists. A few months after the paper was published in Science, follow-up studies revealed the bacterium does require phosphate — even though in small amounts — to be able to grow and sustain life.
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Publié par le 2 février 2013 dans Research, Science

 

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Science blogging in the Arab world (or the lack thereof)

This was first posted at Nature Middle East blog ‘House of Wisdom’.

When I started browsing the web for science blogs from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, I didn’t think it would be such an adventure. And for a quest, it was one.

I thus started entering keywords in the search engine. The outcome was disappointing: one or two blogs in English popped up. I thought it is because I was only searching in English, but French and Arabic searches did not harbour significantly more results. When I asked friends to point me out my wrongdoing, they just laughed and the comment invariably was: “dear, spare your efforts, there is no such thing like science blogging in the region.”

The blogging culture in the Arab world thus seems to mainly touch opinionated people with a say in politics and economy. There is nothing wrong with this. I’ll spare you a lecture on the importance of social media for changing the society we live in, this has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Loads of bits and ink have also been spilled to demonstrate the importance of science blogging. Given the paucity of science blogs in the Arab World, I guess a reminder is more than useful.

Why writing about science? Reason #1: scientists get to speak directly to the public. Reason #2: lay scientists or enthusiasts engage and keep up to date with developments in various scientific fields. Reason #3: open discussions on research topics are promoted among peers.

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Publié par le 16 janvier 2013 dans Research, Science

 

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World AIDS Day 2012: When Will We Live in an AIDS-free World?

This was originally posted on FutureChallenges.com

HIV & AIDS. Image by the author (CC-by-SA 3.0)

HIV & AIDS. Click to view full size. Image by the author (CC-by-SA 3.0)

On Nov 20, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Executive Director Michel Sidibé announced the main findings published in the latest AIDS report. Encouragingly, the number of adults and children worldwide acquiring HIV infection in 2011 was 20% lower than in 2001. Noticeably, AIDS-related deaths have decreased by ⅓ in Sub-Saharan Africa (the region which suffers AIDS the most) for the last six years. Are we reasonably close to the end of AIDS world over?

All this sounds definitely promising. Fewer people die from AIDS-related ailments, fewer babies are born with HIV. Our optimism, however, should not make us forget those 34 million world over living with HIV today. There are still nearly 7 million eligible for therapy but without access to it. Even more disturbing is to know that half of these 34 million are unaware they have HIV. These observations point to the urgent need to work for substantial reductions in HIV infections as well as for better care for those suffering AIDS already.

As a high school pupil in Bulgaria, a friend and I had a youth NGO. We organized campaigns to teach our buddies that AIDS can happen to anyone. Once you’ve been through the very colourful moment of putting a condom on a banana to show how it is done in front of a crowd of high-on-hormones teens, you find it easy to read tedious reports and studies on trends in HIV/AIDS. And when you read a press release by the International AIDS Society (IAS) officially launching its Global Strategy “Towards an HIV Cure”, you just jump to the roof.

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Publié par le 11 décembre 2012 dans Health, Research

 

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