Citizen Science: An Open Source Model For Collaboration

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Design of Experiments, skmurphy

Some excerpts from insightful remarks by Dr. Jessica Richman in “Citizen Science and Mapping the Microbiome” that I use as points of departure for additional commentary on open source models for collaboration.

Citizen Science

Citizen science” is a term that was coined in the 1970s by ornithologists–scientists who study birds—who realized that there were a lot more amateur bird-watchers than there were professional scientists who study birds. So why not incorporate the information from amateur bird-watchers into ornithology? It started the thought process of asking, “How do we involve the public in science, and how do we expand the role of the public in science?”

What got me interested in citizen science was the idea of taking a step back from that and from how science is done now, and looking at that example of how we can involve the public in science at a broader level. We have 7 million scientists now. What would our world look like if we had 20 million, or 100 million, or 1 billion? What would we be able to accomplish? What would we be able to learn? What diseases would we cure? What questions would we solve?

Dr. Jessica Richman in “Citizen Science and Mapping the Microbiome.

Eric S. Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar  offered Linus’s Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Given a large enough set of testers and co-developers most problems can be characterized quickly and a fix will be obvious to at least one person. Most medical and pharma products are not managed the way manage airplane safety is with continuous monitoring and an assumption of failures in the field that will need to be debugged. If we opened up the process by enabling a wider range of experiments and continuous monitoring by a wider range of informed observers,

PhD as Union Card for Scientists

It’s funny how on one side, we have this concern about public understanding of science—people are scientifically illiterate, people don’t understand basic facts about our universe, or people are uninterested in science. And then on the other side, we have scientific institutions that keep people out of science by saying, “Unless you have a PhD from the right school and you get hired to do a specific thing and then you get a grant that has been approved by a committee and you go all the way to the end of this process, only then can you be involved in science.”
Dr. Jessica Richman in “Citizen Science and Mapping the Microbiome.

The presumption of “scientific institutions” is that science, in particular medical research, is working fine in the hands of experts. I am not so sure. In addition to what is essentially a waterfall model–predicting the outcomes of research to secure funding–adding more lean and agile methods that  leverage a much wider population of amateurs and semi-professionals cannot hurt.

The Perverse Incentives of Publish or Perish

Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer, and Brian Resnick in “The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists” identify a number of serious problems in the current practice of science. From my perspective the two most pernicious are the publication of trivial results that are “positive” and the suppression of negative results.

“Scientists often learn more from studies that fail. But failed studies can mean career death. So instead, they’re incentivized to generate positive results they can publish. And the phrase ‘publish or perish’ hangs over nearly every decision.”
Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer, and Brian Resnick in “The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists

It’s hard to measure learning, especially the value of a failed hypothesis, a successful prediction often seems more useful even when it may represent at best incremental progress. I don’t think the majority of problems cited in the article are new, and it’s possible we have created too many research labs that rely on government funding. I don’t know what correct ratio of grant applications to funding should be, I think if you were to peel back the success rate there would be a number of relevant factors and the funding for genuinely novel experiments might be below 1%.

I think the obvious solution to this problem is to involve people in science. Of course, there is great value to the expertise that is gained on the way to a professorship and getting a grant in terms of directing research, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be the only one who then performs science.
Dr. Jessica Richman in “Citizen Science and Mapping the Microbiome.

The other place to bring in “amateurs with new ideas” is when current progress is stalled, areas where we need new ideas would certainly include Alzheimers and cancer treatments. Two of the more interesting areas getting opened up by amateurs are the microbiome and the electrical stimulation of nerves.

Increase Transparency And Participation For Faster Progress

Something I often think about is how science is kind of a spectator sport. If you want to watch people play football, you can do that, and if you want to play football, no one is stopping you from playing football. You won’t play at that level, obviously, but you can still play football.

But in the world of science, you can’t play science. You can’t take ideas that you have, however strange they may be, and test hypotheses to see whether they’re true in any way that is globally useful without something like the process of citizen science.
Dr. Jessica Richman in “Citizen Science and Mapping the Microbiome.

One of the true test for expertise is the ability to offer clear descriptions of complex situations with high explanatory and predictive power. In the same way that Bill James leveraged the transparency of baseball to evangelize sabermetrics, new models with greater explanatory power, increasing the transparency of science may unleash not only greater accountability but more creativity and progress.

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