The Citizen Scientists – Friends or Foe?

Gregor Johann Mendel, the founder of genetics

Gregor Johann Mendel, the founder of genetics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just saw a post on facebook  from my friends over at Biocurious who wrote

“Over on Twitter we just had someone claim that they knew of the Citizen Science movement and that it is “naive & demeaning to prof. #science & #medicine”. Thankfully, Patrik D, one of our resident professional scientists set the record straight right quick. Got us to thinking though. What are some of your best arguments for the importance, and legitimacy, of Citizen Science?”

I thought I would write a quick post on a few reasons why I believe Citizen Science is an important and legitmate movement in the advancement of science.

  1. Citizen science is enabling the Democratization of Science – anyone can participate in Science to me this means that there are many fresh eyes and new perspectives being added to scientific problems.  There have been many examples where a non “scientist” has solved a scientific problem.   One such example is the Godfather of Genetics, Gregor Mendel – a monk with no formal scientific training and yet his observations lead to the basic understanding of genetic inheritance.
  2. The cross-pollination of science with new knowledge from other individuals from other industries can fuel innovation and create tools which advance scientific discovery. The fields of engineering and computing have both played significant roles in advancing biology and have fueled the creation of an entire industry now known as biotechnology.
  3. When it comes to human disease research, funding is often biased to the most common diseases which afflict the most people.  There are many many rarer diseases that don’t necessarily receive the funding or attention of the scientific community – these are all an opportunity to be seized by citizen scientists – particularly when a disease  afflicts  them or a member of their family
  4.  Whether we like to admit it or not, sometimes science today has an agenda.  Whether a project is funded by a pharmaceutical company or another big industry company (Gas, Plastics, or Cosmetics for example) may influence what actually gets published or publicized depending on how detrimental the findings are to the funders business.  Citizen science is an opportunity  to  see some new unbiased  discovery with no agenda
  5. How can generating widespread public interest in science be a bad thing?  We need to lower the barriers to science and make it easier and more accessible to everyone.  Science is often perceived as difficult, elitist and male dominated – many younger women in their late high school years are turned off science because of these perceptions – this citizen science movement can potentially dispel these negative connotations and inspire many more brilliant young people and women in particular to consider careers in science.

2 thoughts on “The Citizen Scientists – Friends or Foe?

  1. Institutional science only gets funded if it passes peer review. It’s impossible to get certain experiments funded because “everyone knows” there will be no interesting results. That’s not a criticism of the reviewers. Usually, they’re right. Sometimes, however, they may be wrong.

    Science depends on baseline data for designing experiments. For a launch vehicle, you want baseline data on acceleration, vibration, acoustics, thermal environment, radiation, etc. It’s almost impossible to get funding for acquiring such data through the peer review system because, again, that is not considered “interesting” work.

    Citizen scientists can do the experiments that would never pass peer review, collect baseline data for later experiments, and find unexpected results when everyone “knew” there would be nothing of interest.

    And sometimes, it’s easier just to avoid the bureaucracy. The idea for the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge (www.citizensinspace.org/astrobiology-challenge) came from NASA, and we even had NASA for a while. A few days. Then we lost the money for tedious bureaucratic reasons. Instead of replying, we chose to go ahead with internal funding.

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